What will likely be remembered as an era of semi-good feelings in Arkansas government is drawing to a close, unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future. Highly conservative and intensely partisan, Arkansas Republicans made unprecedented gains in the 2010 elections, achieving near parity with the historically dominant and less combative Democrats, and readying their home state to become a copy of regressive neighbors like Oklahoma and Texas. For all they did, and are likely to do, Arkansas Republicans are the Arkansas Times' choice as Arkansans of the Year.
Republicans won one of Arkansas's two U.S. Senate seats, knocking off a powerful incumbent and apparently spooking the other senator further toward the right. Before the 2010 general election, Republicans held one of the four Arkansas seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; now they have three. None of the seven state constitutional officers was a Republican; three are now. In the 35-member state Senate, Republicans went from 8 to 15. The 100-member state House of Representatives was 72-28 in favor of Democrats before the election. The new House has 44 Republicans and 55 Democrats, with one seat still to be filled at a special election.
Because most appropriation bills and tax bills require a three-fourths majority for approval, Republicans can now easily block these bills, even if a few Republican legislators vote with the other side. The possibility of paralyzing partisan conflict in state government has never been so great.
Conflict in the legislative process is always present, of course, but in Arkansas heretofore, it's been mostly nonpartisan. There's an old saying that a one-party state is a no-party state. There, political differences have more to do with personalities than with party affiliation. All the Southern states were like that once, but displeasure with the civil rights movement swung the others to hard-core Republicanism, and fierce partisan warfare. Arkansas however largely held on to its one-party/no-party status until now. Ironically, much of the credit for that goes to Winthrop Rockefeller. Once the number-one Republican in Arkansas, he was also the most liberal governor in the South in the late '60s, the opposite of the kind of politician that Republicans in other states were building the party around. He made moderate-to-liberal political views acceptable in Arkansas, and he was followed by a string of Democrats who shared those views, though most of them were better than Rockefeller at keeping their true colors concealed. For all the special-interest connections he made in his long legislative career, Gov. Mike Beebe is part of that group. His powers of negotiation are about to be severely tested.
While the rest of the state was staying Democratic, the Third Congressional District — Northwest Arkansas — went Republican in 1967 and has been there since. John Boozman was the U.S. representative from the Third District for 10 years, and could have held the seat as long as he wanted. But Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat, was considered politically vulnerable this year — most Democrats were — and the national Republican leadership wanted Boozman to run against her, though he's a colorless campaigner. He acceded to the request, then spent most of the campaign hiding his lack of light under a bushel, confessing to having played football for the Arkansas Razorbacks and keeping his mouth shut otherwise, except for an occasional dig at Obamacare. The stories about Lincoln's weakness proved understated, if anything, and Boozman won easily. He was succeeded as congressman by Steve Womack, another Republican, naturally.
Tim Griffin followed a similar strategy in the Second Congressional District, where the incumbent, Rep. Vic Snyder, a Democrat, did not seek re-election. State Sen. Joyce Elliott was the Democratic nominee, a black candidate in an election year when resentment of a black president was strong. Whereas Boozman had gone largely unnoticed over the years, serious charges had been made against Griffin. A career political operative, a protege of Karl Rove, he was accused of trying to deny voting rights to blacks, military personnel and others expected to vote Democratic if allowed to reach the polls. He denied the "vote caging" charge, but couldn't really defend himself from another — that the Bush White House (specifically, Rove) and the Bush Justice Department had conspired to get rid of a U.S. attorney without cause, and to give the job to Griffin to pad his political resume. The voters didn't pay much attention though, so heated was anti-Democrat sentiment. Griffin admitted only to having been a member of the Army Reserve.