A remarkable resistance

Posted: September 3, 2014 at 5 a.m.

At the Northwest Arkansas Political Animals Club, a man told me that he had found my just-presented analysis interesting, which is not to say correct.

He wondered why I’d never written it.

But I had, time and again, in bits and pieces.

No, he said, he meant in one column, altogether, laid out as I’d just laid it out.

So I guess I haven’t. Perhaps I should.

Though I didn’t tell it to the political animals, the analysis actually begins with an observation I picked up from state Sen. David Sanders, Republican of Little Rock.

Back when he was a mere newspaper columnist for Stephens Media, he won a fellowship from a national conservative group. His project was to study why Arkansas had not realigned with Republicans over the last few decades as all other Southern states had.

There are many reasons, all of them amply discussed in this space and elsewhere. But what Sanders reminded me was that, from the Reagan Revolution of 1980 onward, Arkansas made repeated bursts toward realignment to Republicanism. But each time the Democrats huddled up, devised a plan, ran a good candidate, worked frenetically, satisfied the business and farm establishments, stayed connected to white rural conservatives and won back offices that Republicans had won.

Frank White beat Bill Clinton in 1980. Clinton won the office right back in 1982.

Jay Dickey got elected to Congress from the 4th District in 1992. Mike Ross beat him in 2000.

Mike Huckabee won the lieutenant governorship, then became governor and served 10 years, after which Mike Beebe took the office back for Democrats.

Tim Hutchinson got elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996. He served but one term and got beat in 2002 by Mark Pryor.

So here it is 2014 and Democrats have huddled up again. They’ve called their latest, and surely most desperate, play. It’s not quite a Hail Mary.

In Pryor and Ross, they’re running two of their best right-leaning candidates, both with histories of taking out Republican incumbents. They’ve prevailed on the national party for resources for a major get-out-the-vote effort. They’re getting an initiated act on the ballot to raise the minimum wage and drive populist turnout in a way that ought to help them.

That is to say they’re all-in for a valiant last stand.

It’s too late, generally speaking. The Republican realignment has happened wholesale.

The Legislature is now wholly Republican. All four members of the U.S. House are Republican. Lobbyists of longtime Democratic leanings—major backers of Beebe—are starting to talk about how they can work with Republican legislators like Sanders and Jonathan Dismang … and with a governor named Asa Hutchinson.

This time the Democrats can win only on a race-by-race basis, by managing to separate an individual race from the rolling Republican tide. And that can be done only by making an individual race about the specific negatives or vulnerabilities of the individual Republican.

Absent an interruption of the new Arkansas inertia, the generic “R” beats the generic “D.”

Such a disruption of the prevailing tide is plainly happening in the race for the U.S. Senate.

That race normally would be about President Barack Obama and Obamacare, a dynamic by which Democrat Blanche Lincoln got beat 63-37 by John Boozman not quite four years ago. But the race this time is as much about the specific Republican, Tom Cotton—and his specific negatives and vulnerabilities—as Obama and Obamacare.

Republican hubris is one factor. The GOP was so confident of the prevailing tide that it assumed it could win even with a candidate who had voted to the extreme right of the other Republican congressmen from the state—Rick Crawford, Tim Griffin and Steve Womack, at least two of whom would have been stronger candidates.

The effectiveness of Pryor’s campaign in maintaining a steady assault on those outlier votes by Cotton—against the farm bill, student loans, disaster aid and the Arkansas Children’s Hospital—is the other factor.

Cotton is “the gift that keeps on giving,” a Democratic consultant told me.

Mike Ross’ challenge is greater in the governor’s race against Hutchinson.

Cotton makes Hutchinson seem moderate, impairing Ross’ ability to make the race about Hutchinson. And the obscene amount of money spent in the Pryor-Cotton race has dwarfed attention on the governor’s choice.

But there is some very recent indication that the Democratic Governors’ Association has harmed Hutchinson with its foray into the state to attack Hutchinson for improperly taking a homestead property-tax exemption.

At least for a few days, that has made the governor’s race about Hutchinson specifically instead of about Republican inertia generally.

But while Cotton is the gift that keeps giving for Pryor, Hutchinson may not give as generously to Ross. Democrats will call voters’ attention to Hutchinson’s role as prosecutor of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. We’ll see how worked up about that voters remain nearly two decades later.

Meanwhile, the other major Democratic candidates—for Congress and the down-ballot constitutional offices—face an even-greater challenge. It’s to get anybody to pay enough attention to their races to give them any remote hope of individualizing those races and disturbing the Republican tide.

Karen Garcia, the Democratic candidate for state treasurer, needs to make the race about the bluster and absence of qualification of Republican Dennis Milligan.

Nate Steel, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, might need to make the race about the proposed fundamental reshaping of the role of that office by Republican Leslie Rutledge. She wants to transform it from a professional legal-service office into a partisan one resisting what’s left of the Obama administration. But that’s daunting, considering that most voters might favor resisting what’s left of the Obama administration.

Steel might need instead to concoct some entirely different issue. I’m reminded of David Pryor’s stemming a rise in the polls by Ed Bethune in the U.S. Senate race of 1984. The Pryor campaign found a newspaper article about Texas wanting to get water from Arkansas. Pryor came out vigorously against the evil threat of water theft by arrogant Texans. Bethune’s momentum hit a wall. He suddenly seemed soft on water-rustling.

Susan Inman, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, needs to make that race about the recent revelations that, like Hutchinson, Republican Mark Martin also took an illegal homestead property-tax exemption. Her challenge will be getting herself heard amid the Senate and gubernatorial racket.

I’m not sure how Democratic congressional candidates Jackie McPherson in the 1st District and James Lee Witt in the 4th draw any vital special attention to their races.

That leaves Pat Hays, the Democratic nominee against Republican nominee French Hill in the 2nd District. The race may pose the exception. The deciding issue may not be the Republican tide, but Democratic turnout.

A heavy vote in true-blue Pulaski County, which favored even Obama twice, could overpower the suburban Republican vote of Saline and Faulkner Counties and make Central Arkansas the last bastion for Arkansas Democrats.

Pryor beating the vulnerable Cotton, Ross managing to prevail by making the governor’s race about Hutchinson, Hays riding a maniacal get-out-the-vote effort in Pulaski County, or even two of those three—that would qualify as the most remarkable Democratic resistance yet.

John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.