LITTLE ROCK — Republicans will hold a majority of state legislative seats when the 89th General Assembly convenes in January after breaking a 138-year run of Democratic dominance in Tuesday’s historic general election.
The GOP wrested control of both the House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction in a bruising and costly campaign aided aided by out-of-state cash from conservative groups who helped financially in repainting Arkansas’ political landscape from blue to red.
With current Democratic margins of 53-46 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate, Republicans needed to pick up three seats in the Senate and five seats in the House to gain simple majorities. They picked up six Senate seats and gained at least four House seats, with one House race yet to be decided that did not include a Democratic candidate.
Slim legislative majorities give Republicans the numbers to override a gubernatorial veto but not to pass appropriation bills without bipartisan cooperation because budget legislation requires three-fourths votes in both chambers for approval.
"I have every confidence that the majority, not all, of the men and women in both the Senate and the House, Republican and Democrat, will use this occasion and meet the government responsibilities in typical Arkansas common sense and pragmatic fashion," Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, said at a Capitol news conference Wednesday.
Beebe, who had predicted the election would produce slim legislative majorities either way, said he received a call early Wednesday from Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, the likely next Senate president pro tem, who pledged bipartisan cooperation. The two agreed that nobody wants Washington-style gridlock in Arkansas, the governor said.
Beebe said his top priority remains reducing the state sales tax on groceries but had nothing new to say about expanding Medicaid, which he supports but Republicans have resisted.
All 135 state legislative seats were up for election this year because of redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census. Sixty-three seats were decided in the May primary and another by court order, leaving 72 contested races Tuesday to determine legislative control.
Will Bond, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, remained optimistic as vote totals came in late Tuesday but acknowledged a statewide trend toward the GOP.
"We’re very proud of our candidates and the races they’ve run. Many of them have worked incredibly hard, along with folks across the state," Bond said. "I think Arkansas has been a competitive two-party state for at least the last six to eight years. If you look at the numbers, there’s been some bounce back and forth over how many seats the Republicans have held. It’s a two-party system from now on in Arkansas, and we understand that."
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, House Republican caucus leader, was already looking ahead to the implications of Republican control of the Legislature.
"We’ll be able to push a little bit more of our policies and bring our thoughts to the table with a little more behind them, hopefully," Westerman said.
Sixty-two seats were decided in the May primary and another was decided Tuesday when Pulaski County Circuit Judge ordered election officials not to count general election votes for former Democratic Rep. Hudson Hallum of Marion who resigned during the summer after pleading guilty in a 2011 voter fraud case, leaving a Green Party challenger Fred Smith unopposed in Tuesday’s election.
In addition to the infusion of out-of-state cash, Republicans relied on widespread in-state antipathy for President Obama to fuel the GOP takeover.
Democrats’ traditional tight legislative grip loosened considerably with significant Republican gains two years ago, and the slim majorities that remained appeared tenuous following a general election in which GOP candidates focused on tying opponents to a Democrat in the White House who is widely unpopular in Arkansas.
They were helped by out-of-state money that could exceed $1 million from groups including Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch on behalf of GOP hopefuls that flooded the Natural State with mailers painting Democrats as furthering a liberal Obama agenda.