Most political discussions in Arkansas this time of year probably include the words "Obama" and/or "Romney." But the real action is in the state Legislature, where there is a good chance voters will give Republicans a majority for the first time since Reconstruction after the Civil War.
Here’s how the numbers look. Prior to the 2010 elections, Arkansas was the last remaining Southern state still dominated by Democrats. Five of the state’s six seats in Congress and 98 of the 135 in the Arkansas Legislature were held by that party.
But voters turned history on its head in 2010. At the state level, Republicans won 28 of the 37 races where they faced a Democratic opponent – including in Hot Springs, where the Republican candidate recently had died. Now the Democrats’ majority has narrowed to 20-15 in the Senate and 54-46 in the House. If 2012 ends up like 2010, the Republicans will gain control in both houses this year – and probably will keep it for a while.
Let’s focus on the Senate because it’s easier to wrap one’s head around 35 seats than 100. For the Republicans to take control, they must have 18 seats – three more than they currently have. There are 10 races where a Republican is running without a Democrat in opposition. That puts the GOP more than halfway to 18. In another four races, an incumbent Republican is running against a Democrat. Incumbents usually win. That would give the GOP 14.
Meanwhile, a Democrat is unopposed by a Republican in nine races, and five races feature a Democratic incumbent opposed by a Republican. I don’t think incumbency is a sure thing for Democrats this year, but I’ll give those to the Democrats just to keep it simple.
That would make it 14-14, with the other seven races featuring Republicans and Democrats running against each other where neither is an incumbent. Whoever wins the most, wins the Senate.
While the numbers look about even, momentum is clearly on the side of the Republicans. A cultural chasm has been developing for decades between Democrats at the national level and many Arkansans, and that chasm is becoming harder for state Democrats to bridge. This year, the typical Arkansan will start by voting for Romney and then likely vote for the Republican for Congress. Were Gov. Mike Beebe on the ballot, voters might start splitting their tickets, but Beebe isn’t on the ballot. So by the time some voters reach the legislative candidates, they will be in the habit of looking for the ones with an "R" beside their name.
Will all of that be enough to net the Republicans four out of seven Senate races? It surely won’t hurt. Similar dynamics exist in the House.
Why does all this Republican-versus-Democrat stuff matter? Because the Legislature is powerful under the Arkansas Constitution. It can override a governor’s veto with a simple majority vote – in other words, by the same percentage it took to pass the legislation in the first place. Until now, Beebe has been able to maintain the initiative despite his lack of constitutional power, but if Republicans win control, that initiative shifts to the other side. His agenda becomes all about finding Republicans he can work with.
There will be some big arguments next year. Unlike the federal government, Arkansas has been balancing its budget, but the time is growing near when legislators must say no to people who are accustomed to hearing yes. The state must revamp its school choice law, which was declared by a judge to be race-based and unconstitutional. That’s going to be a mess. Legislators must decide if Arkansas accepts federal money to expand Medicaid to more working poor Arkansans. Democrats say folks need the coverage and that we ought to take the money; otherwise, Arkansans will be paying taxes to benefit other states but not getting the benefits here. Republicans say the state and federal government can’t afford what they are doing now.
They’re both right on that last point, but only one party is going to be the majority in the Senate in November. Only one will have a majority in the House, unless it’s 50-50.
Whoever has the majority will have the initiative. Republicans already have the momentum.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org