Arkansas: last bastion of the Southern Democrat poised to fall

Polls suggest that Arkansas' House contingent could flip from three Democrats to three Republicans Tuesday. One of the seats has been Democratic since Reconstruction.

Danny Johnston/AP/file
Republican candidate for Arkansas Second Congressional District Tim Griffin (l.) laughs with his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Joyce Elliott, before a debate at the Arkansas Economic Development Association's annual convention in Hot Springs, Ark., Aug. 24.

Arkansas hasn’t elected a Republican to its First Congressional District since the Reconstruction Era. In the Second Congressional District, which includes Little Rock, a Republican has been elected to the office only once since 1875.

Currently, three out of the four state’s congressional seats are Democratic. That could flip Tuesday night to Democrats holding only one seat.

It looks set to be a bad year for Democrats across the country, and in Arkansas, the GOP tide that has swept the South during the last 30 years may finally arrive in Bill Clinton’s home state.

Polls show Sen. Blanche Lincoln as many as 20 points behind her Republican opponent, Rep. John Boozman. Even some state constitutional offices, which have favored Democrats for decades, sit in the toss-up column. One of the only safe Democrats is popular Gov. Mike Beebe, who leads his GOP challenger by more than 30 points in some polls.

“The overarching Republican campaign tactic appears to be to tie Democratic nominees to the national Democratic party, the liberal label, and some controversial policies, symbolized by Obama, Pelosi, and Reid,” says Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. “In this campaign season, Southern Democrats are having great difficulty separating themselves from their national party. That is something many Southern Democrats have been trying to do at least since the late 1930s.”

Two House seats in play

While the First and Second Congressional Districts are not similar demographically, both are open seats in a year that favors Republicans.

In January, Rep. Marion Berry, who was elected by the impoverished First District in 1996, announced his retirement. So did Rep. Vic Snyder, who was elected by the Second District in 1996, as well. With incumbents out of the way, Republicans seized the momentum at a time when the state’s political landscape is shifting from conservative, so-called Blue Dog Democrats to Republicans.

In the Second, Tim Griffin, a former aide in the Bush White House and a military veteran, leads Democratic candidate Joyce Elliott, a state legislator who is seeking to become the first black to represent Arkansas in Washington, by 12 points, according to a Oct. 14 Hendrix College poll.

In the First, Congressman Berry’s chief of staff, Chad Causey, is running for his boss’ current seat. Polling is more mixed in the race between Mr. Causey and the GOP candidate, Rick Crawford, a broadcaster, but the Hendrix poll gave Mr. Crawford an 8 point edge.

One-party state no more

Arkansas has long been largely a one-party state, even when former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee held office. In recent year, Democrats have often put their hopes on Mr. Clinton and his long-time party allies to keep Arkansas solidly blue – especially in the First District, which has a large African-American population.

But the state has been trending away from centrist beliefs toward more conservative ones for several election cycles. Arkansas voted overwhelmingly for Sen. John McCain for president in 2008. This year, Clinton has visited Arkansas twice since September to rally the Democratic base, but some polls show his efforts have not been effective.

A Republican stronghold in the state is likely for several cycles, some pundits say, because the playing field has changed.

“We remained a Democratic state long after other parts of the South due to a blend of mountain populism and personality-based politics,” says Rex Nelson, a former newspaper political editor who also worked for Mr. Huckabee. "There are some young Republicans who have come on the scene who are much more engaging than a lot of the past GOP candidates in Arkansas…. The populism is now manifesting itself into votes for Republicans.”

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