The day after: Some political thoughts

I rarely write about politics on this blog.

That sometimes comes as a surprise to those who know me since I’ve spent much of my career in politics and continue to love the political game.

There are several reasons why I don’t write about politics on a regular basis. For one thing, there are too many columnists, bloggers and other commentators already out there writing millions of words and using thousands of hours of valuable air time to express their views. Why add to that already crowded mix?

From the start, I was determined to make this blog something different — a few longer posts each week rather than multiple short posts, a focus on the things (from football to barbecue) that make this part of the country such a great place to live.

Another reason I don’t express my poltical views here is that I figure you really don’t care what I think. As we get older and wiser, we hopefully become a bit more humble. Who really cares what I think about health care reform, for instance? I won’t burden you with my political views.

All of that said, I do have some thoughts about what happened yesterday in Arkansas. Maybe I can add some perspective. I’m not one to exaggerate, but for the first time I believe we’re living in a true two-party state.

Arkansas politics traditionally have been personality based. And the Republicans had some personalities rise to the top through the years — a Winthrop Rockefeller here, a Mike Huckabee there. What happened yesterday, however, was different from anything that has occurred in my 51 years here. In a state where a lot of people have voted straight-party tickets for Democrats, we saw thousands of people vote straight-party tickets for Republicans.

That’s new.

Overnight, we’ve gone from five Democrats and one Republican in our congressional delegation to four Republicans and two Democrats.

We’ve gone from all seven statewide constitutional officers being Democrats to three of the seven being Republicans.

We’ve gone from one of the most heavily Democratic legislatures in the country to an Arkansas Legislature in which the Democrats will hold majorities of only about 55-45 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate. That puts Republicans in a position to capture majorities in both houses of the Legislature in the next one or two election cycles.

Sit back, take a deep breath and think of the enormity of all this.

As I ran my mouth last night in the KUAR-FM studio (thanks to those of you who tuned in), I realized I was witnessing history. I had never seen a Republican elected to Congress from the Delta of east Arkansas, for instance. And only once before had I ever watched a Republican declare victory in a U.S. Senate race in this state.

The scope of things didn’t really sink in, though, until this morning when I realized that Republicans had won every contested state Senate seat, had won the lieutenant governor’s office and had won the secretary of state’s office in addition to the land commissioner’s office.

That’s not to mention the fact that my home county — Clark County — had voted to go wet. Now there’s something I really never thought I would see.

Is this Arkansas? Well, yes. It’s the new Arkansas.

Will it be a better Arkansas? That’s yet to be determined.

Having worked in political campaigns and having worked in government, I can tell you that governing is a far different animal than running for office. Simply winning office doesn’t ensure you’ll be successful serving in office. If you don’t believe me, ask President Obama.

Arkansas Republicans must help govern now.

For my friends in both parties, I say this: Don’t ever abandon your principles. But leave the highly partisan rhetoric at the door now that the campaigns have ended and do what’s best for Arkansas. When I worked for Mike Huckabee in the governor’s office, we had a hypothetical question we would ask ourselves in an attempt to remain grounded: “What does this mean for that couple eating breakfast this morning in Dermott?”

As a Republican administration dealing with a heavily Democratic Legislature, we never would have accomplished anything without reaching across party lines on a daily basis and forging compromises. Because we did that, Mike Huckabee will, I believe, be remembered as one of the most successful governors in Arkansas history.

The 2011 legislative session won’t be nearly as pleasant for Gov. Mike Beebe as the 2007 and 2009 sessions were. There’s a lot less money and a lot more Republicans. Given his many years as a legislator, though, I’m confident Beebe will be able to forge compromises. The strategies will have to change, but the goal of building a better Arkansas will remain the same. I have confidence in this governor.

Competition generally is a good thing. I suspect I was a better newspaperman, for example, when I was working for the Arkansas Democrat and having to compete daily against the Arkansas Gazette than I was when I worked for the monopoly Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

And I think competition will be a good thing in Arkansas politics as long as officeholders ask themselves each morning what they’re doing for that couple eating breakfast in Dermott (or Dell, Decatur or Doddridge to bring the other three corners of our state into the mix).

Back in the spring I wrote about how much I enjoy election nights. I’ve found that I enjoy the day after almost as much now — reading the stories, analyzing the returns, comparing notes with fellow political animals. Considering how dry it has been, I love watching the rain out my offfice window today. But I realize that the rainy day likely adds to the sadness of those candidates and campaign workers who were involved in losing efforts.

Twice I’ve worked full time in losing campaigns. That means I woke up the morning after without a job.

The first time was 1984 when I worked for Judy Petty, the Republican candidate in the 2nd Congressional District who lost to then-Democrat Tommy Robinson. I remember how much a call that next morning from Skip Rutherford meant to me. Skip, a Democrat but a friend first and foremost, said: “I’ve been there the morning after losing a campaign. You think nobody in the world cares about you. I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.”

I have friends in both parties — people like Democrat Shane Broadway and Republican Beth Anne Rankin — who lost. Good friend Kelly Boyd appears to have lost his legislative race by fewer than 30 votes. To all of them, I say this: Thanks for putting your name out there and running. We need good people running for office, and you’re good people. I don’t have the guts to run. I’m glad you did.

I’m reminded of a story the Arkansas Gazette put together the day after the 1986 election. The reporter went to various campaign offices that Wednesday to see what people were doing and saying. Darrell Glascock had run Frank White’s third, final and worst campaign against Bill Clinton. White had been wiped out as the incumbent Clinton won with 64 percent of the vote.

Glascock was asked what he would do now.

He replied: “I’m going to buy a Cornish hen and have all my friends over for dinner.”

Some final thoughts on this rainy day when it finally feels like fall:

— I was truly saddened by state Sen. Joyce Elliott’s refusal to concede defeat when she came out shortly after 10 p.m. During my years at the state Capitol, I found Joyce to be an excellent legislator with whom to work. She’s smart, articulate and dedicated to those things in which she believes. On Tuesday night, she forgot her manners. It had been obvious since shortly after the polls closed (actually it had been obvious for weeks) that Tim Griffin would be the next congressman from the 2nd District. There’s a certain election night etiquette that should be followed in a civilized society. Admitting the obvious and congratulating your opponent is part of the process. Joyce made all the wrong moves at a time when she had a chance to be classy and graceful with a statewide television audience tuned in. I can understand why it’s easy for candidates to become a bit delusional; after all, they’ve invested more than anyone. But those advising Sen. Elliott should have forced the issue. The lasting impression for thousands of Arkansans will be of that graceless exit, and that’s unfortunate. Tim did exactly the right thing by coming out and declaring victory as soon as it became obvious that his opponent could not bring herself to say “congratulations.”

— The three best-run campaigns were those of Beebe, Griffin and John Boozman. They were disciplined and focused throughout, and focus is a tough thing to maintain in the rough and tumble of a campaign. As an old politico, my hat is off to those involved in each of those campaigns.

 — It appears Boozman will finish with about 58 percent of the vote. That means I can hold onto one of my few claims to fame. Gov. Huckabee gave me the honor of managing his 1998 campaign. We finished with almost 60 percent of the vote. I can still say I managed the campaign that received the highest percentage of the vote of any statewide GOP campaign in Arkansas history.

Enough politics. Back to football tomorrow.

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