The Last of the Southern Democrats
HATTIEVILLE, Ark. —
Yard signs for local Democrats blanketed the rolling hills of Hattieville, a small town about 15 miles north of Interstate 40 in central Arkansas. Thirty-five aging Democrats, sated by pulled pork and baked beans, gathered at the town’s old school house, now a community center, for a get-out-the-vote event.
After blessing their barbecue, local political leaders introduced themselves, and proceeded to vent their frustrations to the friendly crowd; the outside money and the “nasty mailers” that came with it were infiltrating the quiet community, threatening their age-old Democratic heritage, they said.
“How many of you raise cattle?” asked Johnny Hoyt, a state senate candidate. “Well the good cows, they’ll stand to the back. And the cows with the horns — the mean cows — they’ll come up to the trough and they’ll knock all the other cows out of the way.”
Hoyt used the cattle analogy to illustrate the battles for the Democratic Party.
“We’re going to have to push back a little bit,” Hoyt said. “We’re going to have to get up to the trough. We’re going to get up there and get something to eat. Don’t let them push you back.”
Two weeks later, Hoyt and Democrats statewide lost control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Though Hoyt carried Hattieville and most of Conway County, he lost the rest of the district.
Through conservative non-profit political groups, money flowed to local legislative races from the bank accounts of rich financiers like Charles and David Koch. The goal was simple: elect a legislature intent on curbing regulations and cutting taxes.
The groups and the Republican Party were successful, and leaders from both parties predict that the change will be sustained.
“The Democrats have responded in other times, but this time it’s different,” said David Sanders, Hoyt’s opponent and former syndicated columnist who wrote about the state’s shift toward Republicanism.
A Long History
The Democrats sustained their century-old majority by enlisting retail politics. Politicians projected an economically populist message by shaking hands and explaining issues. The message was received in Arkansas because of the state’s poverty, said Janine Parry, a UA professor and director of the Arkansas Poll, a yearly measure of the state’s political leanings.
While states like Alabama and Georgia boasted prosperous plantations, Arkansas did not, she said.
“There never was a privileged class of any size here; most people can identify with what it is to be poor and, in a way that’s not easily measurable, admittedly,” Parry said. “I’ve always believed it has made us more empathetic to our neighbors.”
Charismatic leaders like David Pryor, Dale Bumpers and Bill Clinton carried the well-oiled Democratic machine through the decades with their personalities. Republicans sputtered, unable to produce a continuous contingent of candidates that could connect with voters.
Republicans had a chance to take Arkansas in the mid-20th century when Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy helped convert the rest of Dixie and her Southern Democrats into red-blooded Republicans. Because Arkansas lacked a large African-American population, black candidates did not run here, keeping a white male coalition together, Sanders said.
“Civil rights started working from within the Democratic Party, but Arkansas did not have diversity pushing through like other states,” Sanders said.
While Republican governors like Winthrop Rockefeller and Mike Huckabee had bouts of success, they were never able to “transform” the party, and turn the tide, Sanders said.
The strength of the Democratic Party peaked in 2008 when Sen. Mark Pryor, son of Sen. David Pryor, won 80 percent of the vote in his race against Green Party candidate Rebekah Kennedy. No Republican ran.
In Lake Village, Eddie Cheatham was battling against outside money and $150,000 his opponent, Mike Akin, raised. Though Cheatham had outside help, he said he depended mostly on name recognition and meeting with people face-to-face. Cheatham won by 363 votes.
“I don’t have an agenda,” Cheatham said at the Lake Village Fall Festival in southeast Arkansas. “When I went to Little Rock, I went without an agenda and I still think I’m that way, but I’m just trying to help the people in my district and I would rather work on local concerns. When people are hurting with state agencies, I like meeting with those people more than anything.”
This has been the way Democrats have gotten elected for generations, said Parry, who directs the Arkansas Poll.
“They’ll want to walk in the parade in Lake Village and shake people’s hands because they know them,” Parry said. “You know, they’ll often say I’m not Nancy Pelosi, right, I’m not Barack Obama; you know me. I’m not a baby killer. I’m comfortable with a gun, but I care about education and healthcare and this community.”
Though Cheatham was successful, most other Democrats were not. The Republicans now hold a 21 to 14 seat majority in the senate, and control the House lies with one undecided race in Eastern Arkansas.
Tea Party Takes Hold
Though voters almost never supported a Democratic presidential candidate touting more liberal policies, Republicans made a breakthrough in 2010, able to link local politicians to the Obama administration, a mounting national debt and the unpopular health care reform law.
Clint Reed led the 2010 elections for the Republicans.
By running a strong group of candidates, population shifting to Republican-leaning regions in northwest Arkansas, outside spending and Tea Party enthusiasm, the party was able to make historic gains, Reed said.
But while those factors all contributed to Republican gains, President Obama’s policies sealed the deal for Republicans here, he said.
“It’s the policies that have really pushed people away from the Democratic Party,” Reed said. “If you look at Cap and Trade, if you look at Obamacare, you look at more of just a very proactive federal government, we’ve seen those things.”
The Affordable Care Act, dubbed “Obamacare” by many, was brought to the forefront again this cycle. Republicans vowed to fight its mandates, while Democrats here campaigned on the Medicaid expansion which would add an additional 250,000 Arkansans to the program.
Support for the expansion was evenly split, according to the Arkansas Poll, but PACs like Americans For Prosperity attempted nonetheless to label the spending as irresponsible, hoping to tie it to the growing $16 trillion national debt.
While Democrats complained about their photos being posted alongside Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama on mailers, Republicans like Sanders asserted that the characterization was fair.
“There was a lot of disenchantment with the Democrats,” Sanders said, referring to how the party “fought like dogs” to implement portions of the Affordable Care Act, namely the health care exchange and Medicare expansion, he said.
Democrats hedged their bets on a secret weapon this cycle: Gov. Mike Beebe, who has a 70 percent approval rating, according to the Arkansas Poll.
“I’ll be honest with you: one of the biggest things we’ve got going for us is Gov. Beebe, there’s no doubt about that,” said Tiffany Rogers, in the heat of a tight race to represent a part of central Arkansas in the state senate. Rogers lost by 10 points.
Beebe could be the last of a long line of Democrats that with name recognition and large personalities were able to carry the party into the 21st century. His term expires in 2014, and so far, no one has risen to replace him.
“He calls me a Beebe Democrat,” Rogers said. “He’s referred to me that way numerous times. It’s our mission to work with people and work across the aisles, compromising, but we still have those values at heart too.”
Reed, who spent time recruiting candidates, said that with white males migrating to the Republican party, he expects the Republicans to win with popular personalities.
“As we grow our bench, I think you’ll see more [retail politics],” Reed said. “I think you’ll see a lot of our local candidates who have great retail personalities sort of work their way up through the legislature and ultimately run for congress and run for governor.”
Some candidates argued a taste of Republican control will turn voters back to the Democratic Party, though they said it could take more than one election cycle.
“They have blinders on,” Rogers said of the crop of Tea Partiers that came to the legislature in 2011. “They don’t try to work. They’ve been programmed by national organizations on what to think and what to say and what to believe and there was no real working with them.”
What the Republicans have offered through messaging, Democrats have outlined detailed policies, she said.
“We don’t put out these tax plans without any substance to it. We say what we’re really going to do,” she said. “The Republican Party platform this year has said that they want to do away with the Arkansas income tax, but they’ve offered no alternative resource for what they’ve wanted to replace it with.”
While Democrats had a diverse array of political leanings statewide, many still portrayed themselves as fiscally conservative and socially moderate. To survive, the Democratic Party might have to endure a bruising 20 years of going at issues from the left, Parry said.
“That strategy (running conservatives) isn’t going to work if Republicans are saying the same thing and still running their own candidates,” Parry said. “Now the Democrats are going to have to regroup and say, ‘Maybe acting like a Republican isn’t the way to get votes anymore, so do we come at it from the left?’”
The Last Stand
It wasn’t that the people gathered at the Hattieville community center were die-hard Obama supporters. Many lamented about how they had to pray to support Barack Obama after he endorsed same-sex marriage. Nearly everyone said the Democratic Party of today wasn’t the same as when their parents and grandparents cast their ballots.
The politicians campaigning at the event contended that their party was one fashioned on building up their community: its schools, roads and hospitals.
However, in order to survive in this era of nationalized politics the prospect of the resorting to characteristic partisan politics and raising thousands of dollars was present, if not inevitable. Gone were the days of depending on a handshake, a county fair or a parade to springboard a political career.
Hoyt, who lost his senate race to David Sanders, said before the election that he was ready for a fight with Republicans. He did not return calls after the election.
His opponent said the years ahead for the Democrats will be tough. As the party loses its conservative white male base to Republicans, minorities and labor unions will have a greater say in the nominating process, potentially turning off voters to more liberal policies.
“It’s simple attrition,” Sanders said.