If the Southern Republican tide is to be stopped short of a takeover of the Arkansas legislature this year, it will require a triumph of moderation.
Gov. Mike Beebe is the template — an informed middle-of-the-roader with populist tendencies who manages to dodge damaging association with the passion issues. His success produced business establishment financial support that he's putting to work to retain a legislative majority for his last two years in office.
The problem is that the legislative candidates generally are not Mike Beebes, whether in political acumen, financial support or familiarity bred by long service. And passion is running against mushy middle-of-the-roaders.
Look to our borders. Missouri went to the polls this week on a "Right to Pray" constitutional amendment. Yes, the 80 percent Christian population of the Show Me State believes it is sufficiently "under siege," as one news account put it, to require further state protection for religious witnessing. When I commented jokingly that the situation was the same in Arkansas — don't non-believers have Baptists on the run from Eudora to Gravette? — I was accused by an extremist Republican of mocking Christians. I was, of course, mocking the notion that Christians are under attack in a state where a liberal view of church-state separation means the local School Board or City Council might politely urge those giving the invocation to try to leave Jesus out of it.
Then there's Kansas, the symbol for the Republican future in Arkansas. In primaries this week, conservative Republicans backed by the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity, hope to toss out the last of remaining "moderate" Republicans. The moderates include an evangelical, pro-gun, anti-abortion preacher who's been a tiny bit reluctant to cut taxes to the extent the extremists desire. He recognizes government provides the occasional useful service.
The extremists control the Arkansas Republican Party. The Republican platform originally was to call for abolition of the state income tax, but provide for an increase in the sales tax to offset part of the loss. Not now. The platform simply calls for abolition of the income tax, which produces $3 billion a year. Its loss would cripple everything from medical services to colleges and public safety.
The extremists don't like criticism, either. To them, it is intolerance. If you criticize the views of a chicken magnate who opposes gay marriage, his followers will make eating chicken nuggets a sacrament. Question the bona fides of a preacher/Republican legislator on his professed interest in serving the poor while working to block expansion of Medicaid — as I did — and he'll change the topic and call you a murderer. Abortion — though legal and constitutional — is murder to this legislator, from the nanosecond an egg collides with sperm. And he sees as accessories to murder the clinics that provide pills and devices to prevent successful meetings between those microscopic particles.
I'd be willing to bet moderate Arkansans — cut off from Koch Bros.' stealth-financed messaging — find this emerging brand of Republican dogma too extreme. We like government services. We like religion, too, though not necessarily proselytizing. A Baptist, for example, might not feel too comfortable in a Catholic Arkansas River Valley community if a new wave of public prayer exercises included a lot of genuflecting.
Can Democrats make a winning message from Mike Beebe's moderation and the extremism of the radical Republicans? Recent Southern history isn't encouraging. Moderation lacks the emotional heat that moves people to the polls. Plus, if the extremists have their way, voting is going to be a lot harder to do.
Let us pray.
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