There’s not a person alive in Arkansas who knows what it’s like to have Republicans in control of the Legislature.
Now, we will all learn together.
Regardless of what side of the political fence you’re on, Tuesday’s election was historic in our state. After trailing the rest of the South in going red, Arkansas will join the region with a Legislature in which Republicans have a solid majority in the Senate and a slight majority in the House.
The last time Republicans controlled either house of the Arkansas Legislature was during Reconstruction — a special session in 1874 to be exact.
The political tidal wave began to roll across Arkansas two years ago when the GOP captured every contested state Senate seat along with three of the seven statewide constitutional offices — lieutenant governor, secretary of state and land commissioner.
On that same election day in 2010, Republican John Boozman defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and Rick Crawford became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win in the 1st Congressional District of east Arkansas.
In the state Senate, what had been a heavily Democratic body suddenly saw Democrats with only a 20-15 majority after that 2010 election.
The Democratic House majority was just 55-45.
For two years after that election, political insiders noted that the GOP was in position to take control of one or both houses of the Legislature in the 2012 election. So in the context of the expecations coming into this week, what happened Tuesday night was not unexpected.
Over the course of two elections, though, the pace of political change in our state is breathtaking.
Will Republicans solidify their new position in Arkansas politics and make this a long-term trend?
I suspect so. I say that with a few caveats. First, the GOP must make sure its nominees are respected business and civic leaders, officeholders such as Rep. Davy Carter of Cabot and Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado. Extremists can and will taint the party brand. The widespread publicity given the comments of some Republican House candidates this year made the margin in the House closer than it otherwise would have been.
Arkansans are conservative for the most part, but they’re not extremists.
Nationally, much is being written today about where the Republican Party goes from here.
This I agree with (and remember I worked in both a Republican gubernatorial and presidential administration): The GOP must be more than the party of angry old white men. I’m an old white man, but I’m not angry. I’m pragmatic — pragmatic enough to realize that if the typical Republican comes to resemble the kind of folks who, say, call in on a regular basis to KARN-FM to complain, the party is doomed to permanent minority status at the Washington level.
Consider some facts:
George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
John McCain won 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008.
Mitt Romney, who pandered shamelessly to the anti-immigration crowd in the GOP primaries of both 2008 and 2012, received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote Tuesday.
You can see the trend.
The percentage of the U.S. population that is all or partially Hispanic (a percentage that includes my wife and two sons) is growing rapidly while the percentage of Hispanics voting for Republicans is declining.
That’s a recipe for political disaster down the line.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who could be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, told Politico: “The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”
Politico’s Jonathan Martin writes: “Republicans face a crisis. The country is growing less white, and their coalition has become more white in recent years. But the GOP’s problem is more fundamental than one bloc of voters. For the second consecutive presidential election, the Republicans got thumped among women and young voters in the states that decided the election.”
Martin uses the battleground state of Florida as an example. There are 190,000 more Hispanics and 50,000 more blacks in that state than there were in 2008. In Osceola County, a suburb of Orlando with a heavy Hispanic population, the Obama margin grew from 20 percentage points in 2008 to 25 percentage points this year.
Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union, said party leaders must figure out that the GOP is “too old and too white and too male and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late.”
Former Bush political director Matt Schlapp told Politico: “Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments. It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.”
Basic moral decency. It’s something unfortunately that some Americans seem to be lacking.
Here’s where the Arkansas GOP could be a national bellwether for the party should it choose to do so. You see, the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction was Winthrop Rockefeller from 1967-71. It was Rockefeller who brought blacks into the state’s political system and began breaking down the segregationist policies of 1960s Democrats.
Older blacks in Arkansas remember that heritage. Even those who don’t remember it have heard their parents and grandparents talk about it.
In 1998 and 2002, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Win Paul Rockefeller worked hard for the black vote and attracted a sizable portion of it.
Because of the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy in this state and the good will it generated, Arkansas Republicans have a unique opportunity to craft an outreach effort to black and Hispanic voters.
Here are the key questions: Do they have the courage to do so; the courage to ignore the angry old white men who call the radio talk shows and write letters to the editor? Will they stand up to the bigots as Win Rockefeller once did? Will they tune out the heated TEA rhetoric and do what’s right?
Will the Carters, the Shepherds and other rising stars prevail or will the extremists in the party prevail?
This will determine if this Republican majority in Arkansas is the norm or just a blip in our state’s history.
In a state that for so long was controlled by Democrats, wouldn’t it be interesting if the Arkansas Republican Party were to capitalize on its Winthrop Rockefeller tradition and in the process show the national Republican Party the road to majority status?