Once the only relevant political entity in the South, the Democratic Party’s Southern base has slowly died off (almost literally) since the 1960s. Their last stronghold, Arkansas, is in danger of becoming completely red in November 2014. For the first time in almost 150 years, the state’s House of Representative delegation to the United States (U.S.) Congress is entirely Republican, and its lone Senator, Mark Pryor (D-AK), is in the fight of his life against a conservative golden boy, current freshman Representative Tom Cotton (R-AK).
Deciphering why Arkansas has remained so reliably Democrat over the years—and why it has changed so suddenly in the past decade and a half—is no easy task. The three experts interviewed by the Politic each gave different reasons both for the decline of Democrats in the South at large and for why Arkansas, until recently, has bucked that trend. The explanation could be purely economic, purely demographic, or purely due to political mindset, but the real explanation lies in some combination of the three.
After Reconstruction ended in 1877, Democrats quickly became the only relevant party across the Southern region of the United States. Republicans, over the course of the Civil War, had become synonymous with emancipation and Northern superiority, concepts that the majority of Southerners opposed. The backlash against the heavy-handed period of Reconstruction did not help the Republican cause. By 1880, all Southern states consistently voted for the Democratic ticket in presidential elections, a trend that lasted almost uninterrupted (with the occasional exception of Texas and Florida) until 1964. One-party rule allowed Democrats to become entrenched in state politics, dominating the state legislatures and gubernatorial offices. This Democratic domination was the case until the 1960s, when most Southern states began to shift toward the Republican Party.
The South’s shift to the Republican Party has been attributed to many factors. The most common explanation has to do with the enfranchisement of millions of black voters after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s. With this victory for civil rights activists, Southern Democrats suddenly lost a large plank in their party platform that was essential to their continued relevance in the Southern U.S. Since many Southern voters had only stayed with the party because it remained racially and socially conservative, those voters, already more conservative than the rest of the U.S., began to shift to the fiscally conservative Republican Party. This shift was magnified with President of the U.S. Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s, and the wave of social conservatism in his wake drew more conservative voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican. In 1994, Republicans held the majority of the South’s Congressional seats for the first time in history.
Why, then, did Arkansas not make the shift? Slavery and segregation certainly occurred in the state, and race relations were a prevalent topic. Janine Parry, an expert in Arkansas politics and a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, explains that while rural, white voters in Arkansas remained more conservative than the country at large, they stayed in the Democrat column for a number of reasons. For one, Democratic politicians were firmly entrenched in Arkansas at the state and local levels, and these politicians were rarely challenged by Republican opposition.
“There were no Republican candidates at the local and state level in Arkansas—if Republicans were hearts, they’d be flat-lining,” said David Lublin, professor of government at American University and author of The Republican South: Democratization and Partisan Change. In the absence of both viable Republican candidates and a powerful central organization for the national Democratic Party, Democrat candidates in Arkansas were able to remain conservative as the national party moved left, creating generation after generation of Arkansas voters who were accustomed to voting on a straight Democrat ticket in local and state elections. The state Democratic Party had successfully disassociated itself from the beliefs of the Democratic Party on the national level through messages and policies catered specifically towards the mindset of Arkansas voters.
Two politicians kept Arkansas in the Democrat camp during the 1990s, the period when the remainder of the Southern states shifted permanently Republican. The first was David Pryor, a mainstay of Arkansas politics since the late 1960s, who held offices in the state legislature, the U.S. House, was elected to governor, and then served as U.S. Senator until 1997. One of Arkansas’ most perennially popular politicians, Pryor kept the Democrat name brand alive and well in the state even as Reagan spread Republican conservatism throughout the country. By keeping his own political views in line with the centrist mindset that identified most of the Arkansan voting base, Pryor kept many Arkansans who may have defected to the Republican Party on the Democrat side simply because they were voting for him.
The other politician who contributed most dramatically to keeping Arkansas Democrat during the 1990s was Bill Clinton, former state attorney general and governor. Arkansas overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in both the 1992 and 1994 presidential elections, and his popularity within the state kept the Democratic Party in good favor throughout the 1990s, when other Southern states had turned overwhelmingly red.
Clinton’s and Pryor’s popularity kept the Democratic Party alive and in good faith in Arkansas, so much so that when Pryor’s son Mark Pryor ran for the seat his father had vacated one term earlier, he defeated the Republican incumbent by a seven-point margin. Upon Pryor’s bid for reelection in 2008, the Republican Party did not even field a candidate against the incredibly popular senator.
But the 2008 election, specifically the election of President Barack Obama, was an impetus for change in Arkansas. Presidential nominee John McCain (R-AZ) swept the state in 2008 with nearly 60 percent of the vote. As Obama’s job approval rating steadily declined in Arkansas, Republicans saw an opening to take back the state, and, running primarily anti-Obama campaigns in the 2010 midterms, that is exactly what they did. For the first time since 1874, the Republican Party took the majority in the state’s legislature. On the national level, Pryor’s Senate counterpart, Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln, lost her bid for reelection by over twenty percent to conservative John Boozman (R-AK). The only major elected office that did not see a party change was governor. Incumbent Democrat Mike Beebe, whose ability to work across party lines made him extremely popular among Arkansans, won a second term with sixty-five percent of the vote. But he was the lone Democrat holdout in an election cycle that seemed to have turned the state red.
“When you haven’t done anything illegal or terminally stupid, incumbents don’t usually lose by as much as Blanche Lincoln did,” said Lublin. Parry agrees, saying that the 2010 midterms emboldened the Republican Party to believe they could contest Pryor in his bid for reelection as well.
The trend only continued in the 2012 presidential election, which saw Republican nominee Mitt Romney take the state by twenty percentage points. This election cycle also saw the election of Tom Cotton (R-AK), Pryor’s eventual Senate opponent, to the House of Representatives for his first term in Congress.
“Right after Blanche Lincoln lost by double digits, I think for a lot of pundits—mainly outside the state—Pryor was the next thing coming. It was two elections in which Arkansas was reacting to national level debates and figures. That seems to have propelled the Arkansas Republican Party,” said Parry.
Pryor’s approval rating plummeted dramatically from fifty-one percent in 2009, the year before his first bid for reelection, to thirty-three percent last year. This plunge can be almost entirely attributed to Pryor’s vote for the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare. Within the state, the approval rating for Obama had hovered in the low thirty percent, and the national Republican Party as well as the Arkansas Republican Party characterized a vote for Obamacare as an approval stamp for the president’s policies. The perception that Pryor’s beliefs were homogenous with Obama’s beliefs and those of the Democratic Party on the national level hurt Pryor’s approval back home in Arkansas, where most voters didn’t like the idea of Pryor becoming a yes-man for the national party.
On August 6, 2013, Cotton announced that he would be running against Pryor in the 2014 Senate race. The Republican congressman had quickly risen through the ranks of the party and was being lauded as one of the most perfect candidates the Republicans could run in a state widely seen as extremely red. As the national Republican Party looked to pick up the Senate majority, Cotton’s race was seen as easy pickings for the party, almost a foregone conclusion. But as the campaign got going in the spring of this year, poll after poll showed a surprisingly close race. Somehow, Pryor stayed in the game.
“People had written his epitaph in 2010,” said Parry. “The fact that the race was close was the story early on, and that helped keep him alive. The reason he not only is alive [but] continues to be a robust candidate has to do with a couple of factors. One is the fact that the Pryor name brand remains strong even if the Democrat name brand doesn’t. The other is that Tom Cotton the candidate is marvelous on paper but he’s not good on the stump. That may not be a fair way to evaluate a candidate, but in a republic, especially in a small rural state, that’s how it works.”
Cotton skipped out on the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, a traditional political event in Arkansas that features candidates in a tomato-eating contest and a parade. After reports surfaced that Cotton was at a California resort with the Koch brothers, who are powerful Republican donors, Pryor’s campaign gained footing in the polls by accusing him of consorting with the elite rather than spending time with the state electorate.
“This is just the latest, but easily the most jarring, example of Cotton’s political ambition leading him to choose his billionaire backers over the people of Arkansas,” said a statement released by Pryor’s campaign.
Pryor has also been able to gain ground against Cotton after endorsements by popular Democrats such as current Governor Mike Beebe, who will leave office after this year because of term limits, and former president Clinton. One of the most popular governors in the nation, Beebe has appeared in support of Pryor several times. Clinton has also already made stops at two of Pryor’s fundraisers and plans to spend two days in October 2014 traversing the state in support of all the Democrat candidates on the Arkansas ballot, particularly Pryor.
“Bill Clinton and Mike Beebe only help Pryor. They don’t look like a sinking ship, they look like a viable party,” said Lublin.
But Cotton has been able to attack Pryor quite effectively by connecting him to Obamacare, which is immensely unpopular in Arkansas. One only has to listen to one of Cotton’s speeches or watch one of his ads, and his campaign strategy becomes immediately evident. Cotton’s campaign website homepage features an ominous picture of Pryor juxtaposed against images of Obama and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.
“[Pryor] votes ninety-three percent of the time with Barack Obama,” said Cotton in a recent interview. “I don’t know many Arkansans who think that Barack Obama is right ninety-three percent of the time.” A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in April 2014 shows that sixty-four percent of Arkansans disapprove of Obama’s handling of healthcare legislation. An NBC-Marist poll released in September 2014 shows that Obama’s approval rating in Arkansas is a dismal thirty-one percent.
As Pryor and Cotton go back and forth in the polls, nobody is really sure how the race will end in November 2014. The race is still considered a toss-up, and unless something dramatic happens in the last month of campaigning, that is not going to change.
“I think it’s going to come down to the wire and really boil down to how successfully the Cotton folks are able to nationalize the race, because that’s been a winning formula in the last two election cycles, versus how the Pryor people are able to localize the race,” said Parry.
Meanwhile, Arkansas residents are feeling the competitiveness of an election for the first time in recent memory.
“I get constant phone calls from poll groups taking polls, and the closer it is the more they want it,” said Arkansas resident Barbara Allen. “On television, they’ll go from a Cotton ad to a Pryor ad to an anti-Cotton ad to an anti-Pryor ad. There’s one ad that shows Tom Cotton in the kitchen with his mother, and they’ll use some of the same footage in a Pryor ad saying he doesn’t tell the truth.”
State party organizations are out in full force, and the Arkansas Democratic Party is using an apocalyptic narrative to turn out sections of its voting base that would normally only vote in presidential elections. At a party function in the spring, Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco insinuated that if Pryor, Mike Ross (the Democratic candidate for governor), and several other Democratic nominees for state offices don’t pull through, the party could be out of elected office in the state for several election cycles.
Ezra Smith, the president of the Young Democrats of Arkansas, an organization which is composed of high school- and college-age students, agrees with Insalaco about the short term, but is more optimistic about Arkansas Democrats in the long run.
“Even if [Pryor and Ross lose], there’s a shift that’s already occurred in the millennial generation that Republicans can’t overcome,” said Smith in an interview with the Politic. “Let’s go out on a hypothetical and say that we lose bad and we lose big in Arkansas. The Republicans can celebrate for three more election cycles. The millennials are going to take back the South for the Democratic Party. You can see it right now. There are close to 2,000 members in the Young Democrats of Arkansas, and I don’t think we have an equivalent. The Arkansas College Republicans have lost four chapters this year.”
Smith also outlined the field strategy that the Arkansas Democrats are relying on this election. They plan to turn out demographics of the state that might generally only vote in presidential elections—particularly women, African Americans, and youth—in the 2014 midterm elections. By aggressively knocking doors and making phone calls, they hope to turn this election in Pryor’s favor and raise support for the Democratic cause throughout the state at large, even in historically Republican areas.
Nobody really knows what to expect on Election Day. The latest poll, conducted by CBS News, shows Cotton ahead by four percentage points, slightly outside the margin of error. No matter what happens, it seems apparent that the last representatives of the once dominant Southern Democrats won’t go down without a fight. But as the South shifts ever more conservative, so too must the Democratic Party, or it will lose any chance of maintaining relevance in Southern politics in the foreseeable future.