Democrats have held majorities in the Arkansas House and Senate for 138 years, and the state remains the only one in the old Confederacy where Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governor's office. But Republicans believe they're well positioned to make history on Nov. 6, when every seat in the 100-member House and 35-member Senate is on the ballot for the first time in 10 years.
"I don't think it's in doubt," said Republican pollster Keith Emis, who said his firm, Diamond State Consulting, had polled every competitive race in the state. "The question is simply how big of a majority. It's going to be very large in both chambers." Meanwhile, Democrats, who currently control 53 House seats and 20 Senate seats, express confidence they'll hold onto the majorities. But they acknowledge it will be difficult. "We'll have the majority in both houses," a Democratic strategist involved in several campaigns said recently, before adding, "I'm not saying it's going to be pretty."
Six years ago, the Green Party ran more statewide races than the Republican Party. Four years ago, Barack Obama lost to John McCain by almost 20 percentage points in the state. Yet the presidential election had little effect down ballot. Republicans gained no seats in the state Senate and only three in the House, leaving Democrats in control of 71 percent of the voting share of the house and 77 percent in the senate. In 2010 in a wave mid-term election that saw Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures across the country, Arkansas Republicans made historic gains, winning constitutional offices the party hadn't held since Reconstruction, and picking up seven seats in the state Senate and 17 in the House.
The race for president is not competitive in Arkansas, and Gov. Mike Beebe isn't up for re-election, but you wouldn't know it if you got all your information from TV or mailbox. Democrats say the election hinges on individual races, where naturally they believe they have the edge in candidates. But invariably Democratic candidates make sure to wrap themselves in promises to continue working with Beebe, whose favorability rating has been more than 70 percent since he took office (a strategy called into question by the results of a recent poll that asked if Beebe's endorsement of a legislative candidate would influence voters in a positive way; 29 percent said yes, 48 percent said no and 23 percent said they didn't know). After Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group based in Virginia and funded by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, aired an ad on TV suggesting that Arkansas is struggling because of a high tax rate and debt, Beebe filmed a commercial of his own, attacking the ad for "trashing Arkansas" and defending his record.
Meanwhile, Republicans want legislative races to be a referendum on President Obama. At a GOP rally on Oct. 27, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said if Republicans take control of the legislature, they owe their victory to the president, telling the crowd, according to an Associated Press report, "Folks, there is one thing he has done right. We should say, 'Barack Obama, you may have messed up being president, but thank you for what you have done to help Arkansas finally become a Republican state.' "
That idea is central to messaging by state Republicans and national conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the 60 Plus Association, which are pouring amounts of money previously unseen in an Arkansas legislative election into this election cycle. All are classified as 501 (c)4 non-profits under the U.S. tax code and are required to operate "exclusively for the promotion of social welfare." By law, they're not required to reveal their donors, so the money they spend on issues surrounding elections (the groups can't legally endorse candidates, but their messages are clear) is often branded as dark money, because it's largely impossible to track. Teresa Oelke, state director of Americans for Prosperity, has said her group has likely spent more than $1 million in Arkansas over a two-year period.