Arkansas Democrats’ strategy for this year’s election is becoming increasingly clear. They plan to distance themselves as much as possible from President Obama and hope voters will embrace the party of the popular incumbent governor, Mike Beebe.
The strategy is not a surprise. Beebe has been one of the few Democrats in the state – perhaps even the South — who has kept a consistently high approval rating with numbers the polar opposite of President Obama’s. But the challenge for Democrats is that Beebe is not on the ballot this year. Obama is.
The work-around for Democrats is to focus on the importance of a Democratic majority in the state Legislature for Beebe’s final two years in office. Beebe hammered home the same agenda in his speech at the Democratic State Convention last weekend.
Beebe explained that to advance his agenda he needs legislators who will work with him, not against him. In a bit of candor, he revealed that internal polling from the state Democratic Party shows that Republicans have a generic advantage in state legislative races. Yes, he admitted that the Democrats’ their own polling shows them behind for perhaps the first time in modern political history. But the silver lining he offered was that the polling also shows that voters prefer a Legislature that will work with Beebe, not against him.
Sen. Mark Pryor, speaking after Beebe, continued the theme, but added a twist.
"You have a state Republican Party that I’m convinced wants to turn our state Legislature into Congress. They want the gridlock. They want that partisan divide, that ideological battle. They want to shut things down," said Pryor.
Beebe and Pryor seem to be saying legislators should be team players intent on advancing the ball down the field for the home team. It is a mentality that a lot of Democratic legislators quietly embrace.
The theme is enhanced by suggesting that an effect of term limits is that the legislative branch is simply overmatched in experience and knowledge of the inner-working of state government compared to the executive branch, where many leaders of the state bureaucracy have worked for decades.
It seems that many legislators, particularly Democrats, are content to push a button and vote with the party rather than spend the time to understand the issue. Often they deeply care about one particular issue or focus heavily on securing funding for projects that affect their home district and are content to allow the governor’s overall budget and agenda to go unquestioned.
But this new pesky crop of Republicans elected to a robust minority in 2010 doesn’t understand the concept of not rocking the boat.
They show up at budget hearings and ask a whole host of questions about state government spending, which results in all sorts of embarrassing news, such as the financial woes of the state Forestry Commission. They actually dare to vote against appropriation bills on budgets if they still have questions on the details.
They act as if it is their job to question, to understand and to propose alternative solutions. The nerve!
In fact, they remind me of a state senator from Searcy who dared to do the same thing under Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee’s administration.
When Sen. Mike Beebe was a part of an opposition legislative majority, he made a name for himself by asking the tough questions while at the same time working behind the scenes for a compromise solution. The result was a governor and legislators that came together to compromise on issues.
One of the signature achievements from that time was the ARKids First health insurance program for children in Arkansas, a bill sponsored in the Senate by Beebe.
The governor believes the Legislature likely will be about evenly split after this year’s election; similar to what it is now, although he is aware the slight majority could favor Republicans rather than Democrats. Republicans are optimistic they will achieve a strong majority in both chambers.
If the Legislature ends up with Republicans firmly in control, Beebe will begin searching for a leader from the other party to fill the role of compromiser that marked his time in the Senate during the Huckabee era.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com