There’s something peculiar about Arkansas. While it is not quite dixie, not quite Midwestern, not particularly industrialized, wealthy, urbanized or populated, a defining characteristic of the Natural State has long been its fierce loyalty to the Democratic Party. From Orval Faubus to William Fulbright to Bill Clinton, some of the party’s most (in)famous luminaries have come from this small state. However, Arkansas is currently undergoing an unparalleled journey of political rediscovery. The Arkansas that emerges from election day this November will be a shockingly different state than the one we’ve known for years.
Arkansas fits the mold of many other Southern and Appalachian states, such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Since the Civil War, Arkansas has been a rock-ribbed bastion of the Democratic Party, voting for the Democratic presidential nominee in all but five 20th-century elections. Arkansans – save for those in the traditionally Republican northwest – are just plain accustomed to being represented by Democrats in the legislature, the U.S. Congress and the governor’s mansion.
Don’t get me wrong, the state has never been particularly liberal – in fact, it would seem that the winning political formula in Arkansas, regardless of party, is social conservatism mixed with economic populism (e.g., Mike Huckabee). President George W. Bush twice successfully wooed the state’s voters by amplifying his credentials on the former.
Arkansas does not like Obama. Period. He was always a little too new, a little too flashy and a little too liberal. And where did he get the gall to challenge former Arkansas first lady Hillary Clinton? An unavoidable point here is race. There is simply no getting around the fact that Arkansas is the only former Confederate state never to have elected an African-American to statewide or federal office. I have every confidence that the vast majority of voters evaluated Obama’s candidacy on a substantive basis, but the state’s troubled history with race relations made it virtually impossible for Obama to ever gain traction.
Public Policy Polling (PPP) recently found Obama to have a dismal 38 percent approval rating in Arkansas – which, in terms of negative feedback, is only outdone by the 30 percent approval of his health care plan. This presents a quandary for Arkansas Democrats up for re-election this fall: How do they distance themselves from a radioactive White House while motivating their base?
One Democrat who’s sleeping like a baby is Governor Mike Beebe. Sporting freakishly muscular approval ratings when most other Democratic governors are tanking in the polls, he is running a Teflon re-election campaign where no criticism seems to stick. Not being a federal officeholder serves Beebe well. With Washington as unpopular as ever, Beebe doesn’t have to sweat it over being cast as an Obama Democrat. He’s an Arkansas Democrat and fits his state like a glove. Beebe will cruise to a second term.
On the House level, things are wild. In 2008, every Arkansas congressman coasted to re-election unopposed. This year, three districts are vacant. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) of the fourth district is counting on his membership in the Blue Dog Coalition and his Beebe-esque political qualities to secure his political fortunes. His Democratic colleagues Rep. Marion Berry and Rep. Vic Snyder – of the first and second districts, respectively – have made a quick getaway. After reading the tea leaves that this November could be cataclysmic for their party, they retired from their conservative districts rather than face humiliating defeats. Barring a last-minute game-changer, Republicans will snap up their seats without breaking a sweat. Rep. John Boozman – a Republican of the third district – recently announced his decision to forgo re-election to the House, as a golden opportunity higher up beckons.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is arguably the most endangered Democrat up for re-election. The aforementioned PPP poll found Lincoln to have a ghastly 27 percent approval rating. Her vote for the loathsome health care reform bill in the Senate greatly embittered her constituents, and the GOP is chomping at the bit to obliterate her. Enter Boozman. Despite this choice opportunity, no first-tier candidate had announced against her until Boozman abruptly concluded, “Hey, I’ll be a senator!” The first tested matchup between the two was shocking: Boozman 56, Lincoln 33. Lincoln has the fight of her life ahead of her.
I can think of three possible reasons why Lincoln might have a shot at pulling this out. First, she benefits from a fractured Republican primary where even the best known Boozman has a relatively low level of name recognition. Second, as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, her clout on the Hill is indispensable for her small, heavily agricultural state. With such clout comes the ability to raise a lot of money – which she’ll need every nickel of. Third, as odd as it sounds, she doesn’t look like Washington. In an anti-establishment year, senators like Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) or Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) projected an image of business-as-usual. Lincoln is a vibrant mother of two in her forties. Will that be enough to staunch her political bleeding? We’ll find out Nov. 2.
After the midterm elections, Arkansas’ congressional delegation could easily swing from 5-1 Democratic to 4-2 Republican. Posterity will decide whether this election is the state’s political “come to Jesus” moment.
Sam Dulik is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at sdulikthehoya.com. Quorum Call appears every other Tuesday.