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Primary election 2012: Some day-after thoughts

I’ve used it a lot through the years, but it remains one of my favorite quotes.

It was the day after the November general election in 1986. Frank White’s third campaign against Bill Clinton had proved a bust for the GOP with Clinton winning re-election easily.

White had used the colorful Louisiana native Darrell Glascock — the man who had helped Tommy Robinson get elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1984 — as his campaign manager. During that 1986 campaign, Glascock challenged Clinton to a drug test with White practically racing to give a sample first.

On the Wednesday after the election, the Arkansas Gazette sent a reporter to various campaign headquarters to write a story on what the day after is like for political types.

As he cleaned out his desk at White headquarters, Glascock was asked what his plans were.

He answered: “I bought a Cornish hen so I can have all of my friends over for dinner.”

For some on this day after the election, it’s Cornish hen time.

I’m glad I no longer work full time in politics. At my age, I find it much more pleasant to sit back, watch the action and comment, which is just what I did last night from 10 p.m. until 11 p.m. on KARK-TV, Channel 4.

Great job with the election coverage, guys. Channel 4 had reporters all over the state.

It was a long, busy day. I had done commentary on Channel 4’s morning show, arriving at 6:20 a.m. I had gone to Camden during the afternoon so I could host a dinner of business leaders and talk about our state’s fine private colleges and universities.

Driving back to Little Rock from Camden, I listened to election coverage on my car radio. First, I listened to the in-depth coverage from Patrick Thomas, Sandy Sanford and Mark Smith on KELD-FM out of El Dorado. Later, Grant Merrill and Jeremy Hutchinson kept me informed on KEWI-AM out of Benton.

Back to that dinner in Camden: On a picture-perfect night with the humidity low, we sat at the River Woods on the shady banks of the Ouachita River enjoying the feast that James Woods had prepared for us — fried catfish, chicken, grilled sea bass, grilled steaks, alligator sausage from New Orleans. River Woods is James’ private events center. If you ever have the chance to go to his Camden restaurant, Woods Place, do so.

These were well-read, intelligent people who are interested in current affairs. We talked about higher education as we enjoyed the feast. We talked about demographic changes in Arkansas. We talked about the economy. But, on primary election day, we talked very little about politics.

I grew up when we were still in the “tantamount to” era of Arkansas politics — winning the Democratic primary was tantamout to election since Republicans just weren’t much of a factor in our state.

As a boy with a deep, abiding interest in Arkansas politics, primary night was when I would beg my father to take me to the Clark County Courthouse to hear the chairman of the Democratic Party Central Committee read the box-by-box returns.

“Okolona Box A . . .”

“Amity Box B . . .”

It was intoxicating.

When not at the courthouse, I would be glued to Channel 7, watching Steve Barnes and my fellow Arkadelphian Jim Ranchino. KATV news director Jim Pitcock would plan for months in advance. Channel 7 would begin its blanket coverage around 7 p.m. and stay on the air until well past midnight.

These days, the Little Rock television stations generally wait until 10 p.m. for election coverage.

It’s not that Arkansans no longer care about politics.

It’s that the Democratic primary is no longer tantamount to election.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that in many areas, winning the Republican primary might soon be tantamount to election.

The changes during the past several years have been nothing short of breathtaking. We’re living history. As I wrote here on the morning after the November 2010 general election, we’re living in a true two-party Arkansas for the first time in any of our lifetimes.

In at least a dozen of the counties in the 4th Congressional District, more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.

We’re talking about the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas, for gosh sakes, once among the most reliable House districts in the country for Democrats.

Granted, population losses in south Arkansas through the decades have led to counties now being in the district far north and west of its traditional footprint in the piney woods.

Still, let’s go down to the heart of south Arkansas, where I spent much of the day Tuesday.

In Union County, 500 more people voted in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary. I’m not sure that has ever happened there.

Ouachita County — the place where Sen. John L. McClellan once practiced law and where Sen. David Pryor grew up — had 1,100 people vote in the Republican primary. There was a time — not so long ago — when no more than 50 people would have voted in a GOP primary in Ouachita County.

So let’s look ahead to November and then look even further ahead to 2014.

On the congressional side this November, Republican Reps. Steve Womack in the 3rd District and Tim Griffin in the 2nd District seem safe.

Some observers considered Republican Rick Crawford’s 2010 win in the 1st District — Crawford became the first Republican to represent the Delta in Congress since Reconstruction — a fluke. But there was little money raised and little enthusiasm generated by the three candidates in the Democratic primary. Now my old friend Clark Hall from Marvell and Scott Ellington from Jonesboro will beat up on each other for another three weeks in the Democratic runoff campaign while Crawford continues to raise money as only an incumbent can do.

Crawford is by no means out of the woods, but all the rating services in Washington now have that district rated as either leaning Republican or likely Republican.

Back down in the 4th District, Tom Cotton can continue to rake in funds while state Sen. Gene Jeffress and barrister Q. Byrum Hurst beat up on each other for another three weeks on the Democratic side. As was the case in the 1st District Democratic primary, there just didn’t seem to be much energy on the part of Democratic voters in the 4th District.

Regardless of who wins the Jeffress-Hurst race, Cotton will enter the fall campaign as the heavy favorite. He was impressive in winning his primary without a runoff against the organized, energetic Beth Anne Rankin of Magnolia.

A former Democratic legislator — who understands Arkansas and its people — told me yesterday that he thinks Cotton is the next rising star in Arkansas politics. He predicted that Cotton will serve one term in Congress and then be elected governor in 2014.

I do know this: There will be far more interest in the 2014 primaries than there were in the 2012 primaries.

For one thing, Sen. Mark Pryor is up for re-election. If I had to guess now, I would say that Griffin will win the GOP Senate nomination to challenge Pryor.

With no clear front-runner in the race for governor, I expect crowded primaries on either side.

On the Republican side, you could see Cotton, Womack, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a business leader or two and maybe even an old warhorse like Asa Hutchinson or Jim Keet run for governor.

On the Democratic side, the attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, has in essence been running for governor since the day he was elected AG. Little Rock businessman John Burkhalter can put a bunch of his own money into the race. Surely there’s a legislator or two on the Democratic side who will run. Maybe even a past statewide candidate or two like a Bill Halter or a Shane Broadway will get in the race.

Consider the fact that this is the first race for governor of Arkansas since 1966 in which we’ll start with neither an incumbent nor a clear favorite.

Mike Beebe was an incumbent in 2010 and the favorite from the start in 2006.

Mike Huckabee was an incumbent in 2002 and 1998.

Jim Guy Tucker was an incumbent in 1994.

Bill Clinton was an incumbent in 1990, 1986 and 1984.

Frank White was an incumbent in 1982, and Clinton was an incumbent in 1980.

Clinton was the strong favorite going into the 1978 race.

David Pryor was an incumbent in 1976 and the clear favorite in the three-man 1974 Democratic primary that included Lt. Gov. Bob Riley (my neighbor from Ouachita Hills) and former Gov. Orval Faubus (whose time had passed).

Dale Bumpers was an incumbent in 1972, and Winthrop Rockefeller was an incumbent in 1970 and 1968.

You must go back to 1966 — almost half a century ago — to find a time when we had a race for governor with neither an established front-runner nor an incumbent. In 1966, Faubus decided not to seek a seventh two-year term. The Democrats nominated Justice Jim Johnson. Rockefeller, who had lost to Faubus in 1964, ran again in ’66 and became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Back to this year for a moment.

Republicans certainly have a chance to earn a majority in one or both houses of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. History in the making.

On the congressional front, if the GOP holds its current seats and picks up the 4th District, the Arkansas delegation in Washington will have gone from 5-1 Democratic at the end of 2010 to 5-1 Republican at the start of 2013.

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, the pace of political change is amazing from a historical context. As I stated earlier, we’re living in a period that Arkansas historians will be discussing decades from now.

Enough politics for today. That Cornish hen is waiting on me for dinner.

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