LITTLE ROCK — The Republican sweep of Arkansas’ U.S. House delegation and a GOP takeover of the state Senate, and possibly the state House, mark a historic shift in the state’s political landscape.
Republicans have not controlled either chamber of the Legislature since Reconstruction and have never before held all of the state’s U.S. House seats. Democrats’ long-held dominance was shaken in 2010 when Republicans won three of the four U.S. House seats and reduced Democratic legislative majorities to slim margins, but with Tuesday’s general election results the state appears to have reached the tipping point.
"I think the last two elections suggest that we are in a new era," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. "I think it reflects the ability of the Republican Party to appeal to the natural conservatism, social and economic, of the electorate and their ability to tar and feather Arkansas Democrats with the taint of the national Democrats and President Obama."
The election saw Republican candidates in the state repeatedly seeking to link their Democratic opponents with Obama, who is unpopular in the Natural State, and with Obama’s health care law. The strategy was employed in races at every level, noted Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
"We had JP candidates getting berated about Obamacare," Parry said with a laugh.
Observers say another factor that benefited the GOP was the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which cleared the way for unlimited independent expenditures in political races. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Arkansas legislative races in 2012 election cycle.
But observers also say the state Republican Party deserves credit for building up its infrastructure in recent years.
"The Republican Party has flexed its muscles in past decades on the executive side on several occasions, but this is by far the most impressive legislative showing, and that suggests stronger grassroots support and more talented, far more effective candidate recruitment," Bass said.
Republicans won 21 of Arkansas’ 35 Senate seats and 51 of the 100 House seats on Tuesday, but the District 52 House race between Democrat L.J. Bryant of Grubbs and John K. Hutchison of Harrisburg appeared Wednesday to be headed for a recount. If Republicans end up controlling both chambers, Arkansas will become the last former Confederate state to have a GOP-controlled Legislature.
Bass said that after the Civil War the Republican Party was tainted for many Southerners, and that sentiment was slow to die in Arkansas. Though the war may seem like ancient history, as recently as the 1950s many Arkansans were only one generation removed from the war, he noted.
The situation has gradually reversed, Bass said, to the point where many Arkansans have soured on the national Democratic Party because of its adoption of liberal social causes.
Obama is the nation’s first black president and the first president to support same-sex marriage.
"Deservedly or not, I think Obama epitomizes what Arkansans don’t like about national Democrats," Bass said.
Future elections will determine whether the political pendulum will continue to swing toward the GOP.
"We’ve clearly changed into a competitive state, finally" Parry said. "Whether or not it’s a transition to a permanent Republican majority? I’d like to give it another cycle or two."
Candace Martin, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, said Wednesday that Democratic legislative candidates performed well against Republican candidates who outspent them three to one.
"Given the close margins that we’ve seen in both chambers, clearly the people of Arkansas did speak to a certain extent to say that they did not want out-of-state interest groups deciding their elections for them," she said.
Martin added, "It is our hope that the agenda at the statehouse will be driven by Arkansans and not these out-of-state groups."
State GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said he was confident that Republicans would have majorities in the House and Senate after any recounts and that the pendulum would swing farther toward the GOP in the coming years.
"We have unmasked the Democratic Party as the liberal party in Arkansas," he said. "Arkansans are traditionally conservative, and they were looking for bold ideas, they were looking for someone to stand up to the liberal policies of Barack Obama, they were looking for a party that will look to efficiencies and making government more effective rather than always looking to increase taxes.
"I think they’ve found a home now in the Republican Party."