Arkansas House Republicans had their plan mapped out before the election.
On election eve, everything seemed set for Republicans to take a strong majority — a predicted 60-plus House seats. Speaker candidate Rep. Terry Rice of Waldron, who lost the race for speaker-designate to Democrat Rep. Darrin Williams only a few months earlier, would win on a revote.
But things changed.
For starters, 60-plus was a pipe dream. Republicans took the majority, but with only 51 of 100 seats.
House members met in district caucuses after the election and selected committee assignments. Republicans seemed less than organized, packing themselves onto a handful of committees such as Revenue and Taxation, but missed taking majorities on several others such as Joint Budget, Public Health, and Insurance and Commerce.
The new Republican leadership seemed to lack the ability to modify and adjust to a House almost evenly divided along party lines. The decision on whether to allow the previous vote for speaker to stand and/or elect a new speaker had not occurred yet.
Meanwhile Rep. Davy Carter of Cabot — or perhaps, more importantly, several of his key backers — believed he could be the best of 100 incoming House members to pull off the task of leading an evenly split legislative body. The rumors of Carter’s possible candidacy spilled out last week, a few days prior to Thursday’s election for speaker-designate. Whether he would run remained in doubt until minutes before the House convened at noon.
Although Carter is well-respected in the Republican caucus, many were unsettled by his last-minute entry. Carter had been discussed as a possible candidate for speaker during the last session, but when he decided not to pursue it the caucus quickly settled on the soft spoken but reliably faithful Rice.
Rice spent time and money working to create a majority in the House. He donated over $50,000 of his own funds to Republican campaigns and he traveled to many of their events, speaking about what Republicans would do if they were given a majority by voters. Many Republicans had told Rice they would vote for him for speaker and felt an obligation to stick with him.
But a small coalition of mainly young conservatives such as Reps. John Burris of Harrison and Duncan Baird of Lowell believed Carter was the best person to lead the new House dynamic. Although Carter did not have a high profile during the campaign, he had played a big role for Republicans in the prior year’s session, pushing back against Gov. Mike Beebe and the Senate to get a larger package of tax cuts passed. He also did it in such a way that all sides walked away with respect for Carter.
In fact, Beebe became a Carter fan.
“I really like Davy Carter. He’s thoughtful, knowledgeable, and he looks at everything as a whole,” said Beebe when I asked him about a tax reform proposal from Carter last January. “I think he has credibility with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican. And I think he is a leader and I think he is somebody that I have confidence in.”
And so it was that last week Carter held on to a half dozen or so of his Republican supporters and the vast majority of the 48 House Democrats to be elected House speaker for next year’s session.
Carter is under no illusion that his task will be easy.
“We have two issues as I stand here today; everything else is inherently secondary. We have Medicaid issues and we have tax reform. And those are going to at some point collide. That will likely be the heart of the session so we have got to get those two issues resolved,” Carter said shortly after being elected.
The session may be bumpy with the first Republican majority since Reconstruction, but Carter has the tools to smooth the road a bit.
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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.