John Locher/AP
Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas, seen here at the Republican National Convention last week, is a symbol of how national politics in Arkansas has taken a hard right.

How the Clintons' 'home' state turned so red, so quickly

The polarization that defines Washington politics hit Arkansas relatively recently and quickly. The shift shows the forces at work elsewhere, too. 

In his blue jeans, tan boots, and blue blazer, Bobby Pierce is every inch the Southern politician, from the Biblical verses he quotes to the National Rifle Association card in his wallet. A small-town businessmen, he was elected in 2012 to the Arkansas Senate from this largely rural, white constituency where he’s spent his whole life.

Just one thing stands in his way to reelection in November, he says. The big D on his back. 

D for Democrat, the political party that for generations ran Arkansas as its fiefdom but has now become a shrinking violet in a southern sea of red. D for the administration of Barack Obama, whose policies and worldview and race are distrusted by many here. Arkansas’s realignment, against a backdrop of intense polarization in Washington, makes Mr. Pierce something of an anachronism: a “blue-dog” Democrat in a conservative district.  

Though the political wind had changed in recent decades, these centrist Democrats had stayed in power, using their prominence and charisma to win over social conservatives. But that strategy no longer works as well in an era of national party polarization, especially since the 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate campaign spending. Ultra-rich donors from outside the state have underwritten a conservative backlash to Obama and his party, dramatically reshaping Arkansas’s political landscape.

This puts Arkansas firmly in the Republican camp for November’s presidential vote, despite Hillary Clinton’s status as the state’s former first lady.

Even Bill Clinton, the popular former governor who carried the state in 1992 and 1996, has said that he couldn’t win in Arkansas today. He’s right, says Asa Hutchinson, the current governor who as a senator helped lead the 1998 impeachment of Mr. Clinton when he was in the White House. That’s because Arkansas has changed – and so have the Democrats, becoming a party that’s now seen here more as liberal New Yorkers than social-conservative Southerners. 

“It’s a cultural shift, and a recognition that nationally Democrat politics have shifted to the left,” says Governor Hutchinson, who defeated a Democratic candidate in 2014 after the previous Democratic governor reached his term limit. “We’re catching up with the rest of the South in terms of conservative politics.”

The Obama effect

Democrats here can be forgiven for feeling whiplash. 

In 2012, the Republican party broke their lock on the statehouse, winning both houses for the first time since Reconstruction. In Congress, where as recently as 2008 Democrats held both Senate seats and three out of four House seats, the entire caucus has turned red. Sen. Tom Cotton, a hawkish Republican, completed the sweep by easily beating a moderate Democrat in 2014. 

Still, the realignment in Arkansas has left largely intact a tradition of bipartisanship in state governance. 

As of two years ago, the most polarized states were California, Colorado, and Arizona, according to research by Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty that tracks the ideological difference between the parties. Arkansas is a mirror image of Massachusetts, where the average Republican is more liberal than in red states. 

That doesn’t extend to presidential politics, however. In 2012, Obama polled only 37 percent of voters to Romney’s 61 percent.

Some say Mrs. Clinton will do better. But that year’s campaign was all Obama, all the time, says a former high-ranking Democrat legislator. Republican candidates in state and national elections all sought to capitalize on the president's disapproval ratings among conservatives in Arkansas, including those who had historically voted Democrat. “No matter what the [ballot] match-up was it was Republicans running against Barack Obama,” he says. 

A Republican politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says Obama’s unpopularity among conservatives was a catalyst. “He’s been nitro in the engine. The engine was going [Republican] anyway.” He says another powerful factor in dislodging incumbent Democratic lawmakers in Washington was online access to their voting records; they couldn’t “deceive” voters about their stances on issues like gun control, abortion, and healthcare.

Many voters still identify as Democrats, says Janine Parry, a professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, who runs a respected annual poll that has tracked partisanship and policy preferences since 1999. 

Last year’s poll found that 32 percent of respondents identified as Democrat, more than Republican (27 percent) and equal to the percentage of self-declared independents. But among these independents, Republicans held a clear lead, 42 percent to 23 percent; in 2008, the margin was closer, 32 percent to 30 percent.

The partisan shift is strongest among older white voters in rural districts. Even if they don’t call themselves Republicans, their voting patterns are clear. “Right now they’re swinging hard and consistently to the right. That will endure,” Professor Parry says. 

Not your average D.C. Democrat

Pierce says he’s campaigning for reelection on his record on local, not national, issues, and is at pains to distinguish his party in Arkansas from the one in Washington that is a lightning rod for conservative critics. “Everyone tries to put us with them. We’re not the same party,” he insists. 

On a recent morning, he pulled on his blazer over an unbuttoned shirt and walked into the two-story county courthouse in downtown El Dorado, an orderly town near the Louisiana state line. Inside a small crowd had gathered around a row of six seated men, elderly military veterans who were being honored with embossed town proclamations and handmade quilts. 

Pierce grinned and backslapped his way to the wooden dais, where he waited his turn to pay his respects to the veterans. Freedom “is not free. It has a price. Thanks y’all for serving your country,” he said. 

As the ceremony wrapped up, Pierce went over to confer with county judge Mike Loftin, a Democrat, who thanked him for arranging a $5,000 emergency grant from state funds to replace the air conditioners at a Red Cross office. “We had our money in three days,” he crowed. 

Pierce’s Republican challenger in November, Trent Garner, was also at the courthouse and stood near Pierce and county officials while families took photos of the veterans and their quilts. 

Mr. Garner, a former Green Beret from nearby Camden who served two tours in Afghanistan, is a young protégé of Senator Cotton, a fellow Army veteran. He declines to discuss the upcoming election, his first run for office, saying he was attending in his role as a staffer of Cotton. “I’m not allowed to talk politics,” he says. 

Cotton’s campaign in 2014 was pivotal, analysts say, and not just because it unseated the last Democrat in the congressional caucus. What Cotton’s victory showed was that national ideology and partisanship, funded by outside money, trumped residual loyalties to Democratic politicians whose personality and pedigree had mattered more than their affiliation. That Cotton was a stiff campaigner who skipped the county fairs – the essence of small-town retail politics – didn’t stop him crushing his glad-handing opponent, Mark Pryor. 

A new element: outside money

At the courthouse, Eugene Blevins, a Korean war veteran who was among the six honored, says he is a registered Democrat, though lately he has voted Republican. 

What matters at election time are conservative values, he says. “I’ll vote for whoever thinks like I do. That’s the way we do it in southern Arkansas.” 

Money also helps: GOP donors unleashed by the 2010 Citizens United ruling poured into down-ballot contests for judicial and legislative posts. Out-of-state mailings and TV ads in 2012 put Democrats on the defensive about the Affordable Care Act and other Obama policies, including social issues. In some races, national donors could outspend opponents with as little as $15,000, says the former Democrat legislator. “Here that’s a lot of money,” he says. 

Pierce saw first-hand the impact of what he calls “Koch Brothers money” injected into state politics. In 2011, when he ran for the senate after serving as a state representative, his district was blanketed with out-of-state mailings attacking him and his party. Some showed images of two men embracing, a reference to Obama’s support for gay marriage. “I wouldn’t even go to the mailbox for the last two weeks” of campaigning, he says. 

As a Southern Democrat, Pierce’s voting record is conservative compared to the national party; he supports gun rights, voted for tax cuts, and has sponsored bills to cut red tape on small businesses. That conservatism puts him closer to mainstream Republicans in Arkansas than liberal Democrats in Washington, and is part of his pitch to voters. “I’m older and I’ve got more experience. I can work across the aisle,” he says, taking a dig at his young opponent. 

On state level, pragmatism remains

The fact that Arkansas’s legislature is far less polarized than most states, even after its rapid realignment, is rooted in a strong history of bipartisanship.

Even when Democrats controlled the statehouse, say lawmakers, there were bipartisan efforts to decide and implement policies, and the same has continued under GOP leadership. This is partly by design: All spending bills require 75 percent approval and the constitution mandates a balanced budget, forcing rivals to thrash out compromises. 

“There’s a core tradition of pragmatism. It’s not really all about party, it’s about getting the job done,” says Jay Barth, a politics professor at Hendrix College, a liberal-arts college outside Little Rock, and a prominent Democrat activist. 

That pragmatism played out in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which national Republicans adamantly oppose. Mike Beebe, the previous Democratic governor, worked with GOP state lawmakers to expand Medicare coverage for over 200,000 low-income Arkansans using private insurers. One of the leading Republicans who supported the program lost in a primary in 2014, showing the risk of such cooperation. 

Hutchinson has adopted and amended the program, which put him at odds with lawmakers in his own party that wanted to end it. He says he still opposes the ACA but didn’t think it was right to do away with the coverage that had been extended to needy Arkansans. And he says that pragmatism in the statehouse is the only way to go. 

“What we’ve done well in Arkansas is to engage the legislature in a bipartisan way early on in key issues, where the end result isn’t just something I want to do as governor or the representatives want to do, but something we want to build together,” he says.

(Editor's note: This story was corrected to clarify Sen. Pierce's background before entering the Senate.)

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