It’s Election Day, and it’s probably symbolic that Arkansas Republicans are holding their shindig in a big hotel with roving searchlights outside, while the Democrats are holding theirs in a mid-sized downtown restaurant.
The rest of the country is engaged in business as usual — re-electing the president while keeping Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate.
But Arkansas is undergoing a historic change that has lasted the past two election cycles and probably will continue. For the first time since 1874, Republicans are gaining control – in fact, dominance – of the state Senate by a margin of 21-14. As of this writing, they are leading in House races, 50-48-1, and they are ahead in the one undecided race.
Republicans actually expected to do better than they did, and Democrats expected to do worse than they did, but the state is still in the midst of a historic realignment. From late 1874 until Winthrop Rockefeller took office in 1967, every Arkansas governor was a Democrat. When Rockefeller won, 132 of the state’s 135 legislators were Democrats. Prior to the 1994 elections, Republicans held only four seats in the 35-member Senate.
Awaiting the returns, the GOP’s chairman, Doyle Webb, recalls a lifetime of being in the minority party. Like everyone else in Saline County, his family members were Democrats, but when he was 11, his aunt decided the state needed two parties and became Winthrop Rockefeller’s county campaign manager in the 1966 race.
That decision was not universally accepted. One day she left work and found that someone had poured battery acid on her prized new light blue Ford Galaxy. But she found an ally in Webb, who put up yard signs and fastened political stickers on his bike so that it could be seen by parents of the kids at a nearby school.
Webb was one of four elected to the state Senate in 1994, doubling the party’s previous number. He later became chief of staff for Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller. Now he’s chairing the party that will hold power in the Senate and at least share it in the House.
I should pause to say that Webb was my boss and co-worker for three years from 2004-06 when I was Rockefeller’s communications director.
Across town, the Democrats who are crowded in the Cotham’s in the City restaurant seem at least as focused on the national picture as what’s happening statewide.
But not Will Bond, the party’s chairman. While President Obama is winning, the trend is moving in the opposite direction in Arkansas, and that’s Bond’s responsibility.
Like Webb, Bond has deep party loyalties. Both he and his mother were Democratic state representatives. But he’s been dealt a tough hand that includes a distinct funding disadvantage and a Democratic president who is very unpopular in parts of the state.
I catch Bond striding from the restaurant, where the party is breaking up, to state Democratic headquarters. He knows it’s not going to be a great night, but he’s awaiting the final returns before he says a lot.
Others might be thinking about the presidency; he’s thinking about his fellow Arkansas Democrats, particularly the ones who lost.
“That’s what is tough, when you’ve tried to help recruit these candidates, and they put their lives on hold and their families out there through this process, and it’s a difficult atmosphere out there right now,” he says. “That’s tough.”
Webb knows that feeling. For decades, Republican candidates knew they probably would lose just because they had an “R” by their name, even in those cases when they were clearly the better candidates. When I ask if he feels “pity” for the Democrats, he doesn’t laugh it off.
“We’ve been there so many times, I can empathize with them and understand,” he says. “I don’t believe that we will be out there spiking the football, and I hope that we don’t. There’s time for joy, and there’s time for excitement, and there’s time for celebration, and then there will be time to work together for what’s best for Arkansas.”
With the Senate controlled by one party, the Governor’s Mansion by another, and the House almost evenly split, there won’t be any other choice.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org