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Arkansas GOP goes national in bid to control legislature 

It's all Obama, all the time for state Republicans.

click to enlarge BROTHERS FROM ANOTHER MOTHER: Or so Republicans would like voters to think about Gov. Beebe and President Obama, who last visited the state at this rally for Beebe in 2006 image
  • Nelson Chenault
  • BROTHERS FROM ANOTHER MOTHER: Or so Republicans would like voters to think about Gov. Beebe and President Obama, who last visited the state at this rally for Beebe in 2006.

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.

Mailers from 60 Plus have targeted state Democratic incumbents for voting "to support President Obama's health care plan," while Americans for Prosperity has distributed postcards congratulating state Republican incumbents for standing against "President Obama's trillion-dollar, Washington-centered healthcare plan." Never mind that state Republicans merely blocked a bill that would've allowed the state to set up its own health care exchange. For all the Republican talk of states' rights, blocking the bill ceded much state control of the exchange to the federal government.

Meanwhile, GOP party chairman Doyle Webb and other state Republicans try to paint their candidates as deficit hawks. In one editorial, Webb wrote that state Republicans "have gone on the record to end Pres. Obama's massive expansion of debt." Never mind that the Arkansas Constitution requires a balanced budget and state Republicans lack the power to control the national debt.

By linking Obama's policies to state legislators, Republicans are playing off Americans' long-held weakness in political knowledge, said Janine Parry, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and the director of the annual Arkansas Poll.

"I had a student, a really good student and a native Arkansan, four or five years ago, approach me halfway through an advanced class on Arkansas politics, and say, 'I'm so sorry I'm asking you this, but you're telling me that there is a Capitol and state legislature in Little Rock that's just in charge of the state?'

"I think he's probably an extreme case, but in American national government class, people are shocked all the time to learn that there is a Capitol in Little Rock. The conflation of [state and federal government] has long been with us, and it seems to grow worse with the penetration of national media and national campaign tactics. Republicans are wisely if cynically playing off that weakness. Right now for Arkansas Democrats that's a disaster."

By linking Obama to state legislative races, Republicans also leverage whatever antipathy Arkansans have towards the idea of a black president. To what degree racism plays a factor is difficult to know, but it's certainly been evident this political cycle. At a rodeo in Greenwood in July, an effigy of President Obama was kicked by a rodeo clown and knocked around by a bull after an announcer reportedly asked the audience, "Who wants to rip Obama's head off?" A month earlier in Mountain Home, a board member of the Ozark Tea Party was recorded telling a joke to a Tea Party rally about a black child asking his mother the definition of democracy. " 'Well, son, that be when white folks work every day so us po' folks can get all our benefits.' 'But mama, don't the white folk get mad about that?' 'They sho do, son. They sho do. And that's called racism.' "

Episodes like those alone don't explain why Arkansas voters don't like the president. But as The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed, "Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others." In the state Democratic primary in May, an unknown lawyer from Tennessee named John Wolfe won 36 counties and 42 percent of the vote for the Democratic presidential nominee. He explained why voters supported him and not the president in an interview with The Weekly Standard: "He says 'Chil-ay' and "Pah-kee-stahn,' " Wolfe said, imitating Obama's pronunciation of Chile and Pakistan. "I say 'Chil-ee' and 'Pack-a-stan.' They like a person who talks like them."

Regardless of the degree to which race informs Arkansas voters, state Republicans and conservative third-party groups clearly hope to exploit it. Postcards sent to Arkansas voters from the Arkansas Republican Party and advocacy groups Americans for Prosperity and 60 Plus contain obvious racial messages. The State Republican Party clearly hopes to undermine any help Beebe might provide state legislators with a postcard headlined, "The Obama agenda." It includes a large picture of Gov. Beebe and then-Sen. Obama fist-bumping at a 2006 campaign rally for Beebe. An arrow with the words "More of the same with" points to targeted Democratic state legislators. The background is a charred American flag. On a mailer from 60 Plus that attacks state legislators for supporting Obamacare, the most prominent image is of an unsmiling black doctor. On one side of a postcard from Americans for Prosperity, a multi-generational white family sits in the grass. Young, attractive parents each hold young children. Resplendent between them, white-haired grandparents smile toothily. On the other side, a brown-skinned woman wears a lab coat and holds a clipboard. Next to her, the words: "A trillion-dollar, Washington-centered plan ... Can we afford it?" Above the glowing grandparents, the words "Jon Hubbard stood with us."

Hubbard, a state representative from Jonesboro running for re-election against Democrat Harold Copenhaver in District 58, prominently includes excerpts from his self-published book, "Letters to the Editor: Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative," on his website. In a section entitled "The Black Blessing in Disguise," he suggests slavery "may actually have been a blessing in disguise," and wonders, "Wouldn't life for blacks in American [sic] today be more enjoyable and successful if they would only learn to appreciate the value of a good education? Also, wouldn't life for blacks in America today be more successful if they would only see government entitlement programs as a last resort ...?"

Rep. Loy Mauch of Bismark, who is running for re-election in District 26 against Malvern city attorney David Kizzia, was featured on an otherwise identical mailer from Americans for Prosperity. He's also written a host of letters to the editor. In 2009, in a letter to the Democrat-Gazette, he wrote, "... If slavery were so God-awful, why didn't Jesus or Paul condemn it, why was it in the Constitution and why wasn't there a war before 1861? The South has always stood by the Constitution and limited government. When one attacks the Confederate Battle Flag, he is certainly denouncing these principles of government as well as Christianity." In another letter, he compared Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Stalin and Karl Marx.

After the Arkansas Times Arkansas Blog excerpted from Hubbard's book, Mauch's letters and a book by Charlie Fuqua, the Republican challenging Rep. James McLean in District 63 — in which he suggests parents should be allowed to execute rebellious children and all Muslims should be expelled from the United States — the views of the three Republican legislative candidates became international news.

In a statement released before the Arkansas Blog excerpted Mauch's letters, Republican Party chairman Doyle Webb said, "The reported statements made by Hubbard and Fuqua were highly offensive to many Americans and do not reflect the viewpoints of the Republican Party of Arkansas. While we respect their right to freedom of expression and thought, we strongly disagree with those ideas. It's unfortunate the Democratic Party of Arkansas is attempting to hold onto one-party control by engaging in distractions that do nothing to put hardworking Arkansans back to work and rebuild our economy."

In a statement released to KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Hubbard defended himself, "Obama-Pelosi-Beebe Democrats, led by left-wing bloggers, have attacked me over a book I wrote in 2008. They attacked me because I'm a conservative, and they've taken small portions of my book out of context, and distorted what was said to make it appear that I am racist, which is totally and completely false." Later in a letter to the Jonesboro Sun, he compared Governor Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, each of whom had criticized Hubbard, to Hitler.

Clint Reed, a Republican political consultant and pollster in Little Rock, said he doubted the publicity surrounding the extremist views held by Fuqua, Hubbard and Mauch would make a difference in their individual races.

"I think it has had an impact in terms of the overall narrative of the election, but I'm not sure it's going to make a difference in their individual races. For the people that know Loy Mauch in Bismark, who've ridden bulls with him or whatever, it may be solidifying Loy's support. We're talking about a small percentage of undecided voters on that local level."

Strong campaigning could overcome the ill effects of the publicity, one Democratic strategist suggested.

"People underestimate Jon Hubbard. He's crazy, but he works his ass off. Jon Hubbard shows up at every voter's business and goes into every small business and sits in the break room. It's a lot harder to say he's crazy after you spend 20 minutes talking to him about your kid's soccer game."

"I don't see where anybody on the other side — aside from one representative [Davy Carter, of Cabot, who Tweeted his support for Rep. James McLean] — has said that these guys shouldn't be elected," Democratic Party chairman Will Bond said recently in an interview. "The silence is deafening. These three don't want to take us a little backwards, they hold views that were popular before the Civil War. It shows a stark contrast between the views of the two parties. I just don't believe that Arkansans share these views and expect all three to be beat, and I hope for the sake of the state that they are."

Republican pollster Emis recently Tweeted, "If I were betting I would not bet against Jon Hubbard." Asked about the prospects of Hubbard and Mauch in a recent interview with KARN, Republican state chairman Doyle Webb said, "I would anticipate that the voters in their districts will send them back to the legislature. Once again, we are a representative democracy and those candidates have done a good job at working for lower taxes, for job creation, for economic development, better education."

In the money battle, Republicans, abetted by third-party groups, have a clear advantage. But Democrats say their targeting — the means by which voters are sorted based on all sorts of demographic information that indicates their political preferences — could help make up some of the money gap. According to one Democratic insider, "The Democratic Party of Arkansas is the model for voter files. We have other states that call to find out how we do ours so well. I won't say it's the best — because there are a couple others that are as good — but there are none better."

Michael Cook, a Democratic political consultant, made modernizing the voter files his chief priority when he became executive director of the state party in 2002. "When I came aboard, the state party only had a voter registration list. Because of the way the data was collected at the state level, I couldn't tell if individual voters voted in state primaries or not. Of course primary voting is a fabulous way of very basic targeting. So we went to all 75 county clerks to get the voting history and then we added that to the file. Then we started adding everyone who was a teacher on the file, everyone who has a hunting license — we took all these publicly available lists and merged them into one file. Since then, the party has continued to add more data and election lists and more high-tech lists into the file. It saves time and money. You don't need to talk to people who already are with you or people who are against you."

Asked if he ever invested in the highly detailed consumer information companies like Acxiom sell, Cook said, "There are some things I just don't talk about."

Republicans counter that their targeting, in terms of allocating resources, is better than Democrats'. They say Democrats are pouring resources into races that are out of reach and ignoring highly contested ones still in reach. But at least in terms of direct mail targeting, anecdotal evidence suggests an edge for the Democrats. Lifelong Democrats have reported being flooded with mailers from third-party groups and the state Republican Party on behalf of state legislative candidates. One direct mail postcard, paid for by the state Republican Party, which attacked Sen. Steve Harrelson of Texarkana, who is running for re-election in District 11 against Republican Jimmy Hickey Jr., went to Harrelson's mother's address in Texarkana.

Beyond targeting, with Arkansas the last blue speck on the map in much of the Midwest and nearly all of the South, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) is committing resources in the state for the first time in recent history. The DLCC is a 527 organization that, unlike 501 (c)4 groups, must disclose its donors. Asked how much money the DLCC planned to invest in this political cycle in Arkansas, the organization's communications director Dan Roth said, "The DLCC is investing a considerable amount to compete with out-of-state billionaires who will stop at nothing to get their way. Beyond that, we do not discuss our specific strategies."

Republicans, already claiming victory, see their ascendancy in state politics as the culmination of years of growth. "I think it's a long term trend that's come to fruition," said Emis. "It's not a linear motion. It's like a stock chart. There are peaks and valleys as you go, but it's trending upwards all along. In 1998, for instance, the Republicans had 11 members in the state House. In 1999, they had 24. There have been wins that were percentage-wise much larger than we've seen in the last two years. You start from zero, it takes a lot of time."

Parry, the University of Arkansas political scientist, said this recent Republican surge in the legislature could be the latest development in another trend.

"If you look at Arkansas politics since the 1960s, there's a pattern in which everyone talks about the great Republican window. It could be Rockefeller showering the state with money to create a Republican Party. It could be the adoption of term limits, which was supposed to level the playing field because the Republicans couldn't get a fair shake. Huckabee was supposed to be a window. But every time it was a flash in the pan."

Because of that history, Parry said she's not ready to predict that Arkansas has become solidly Republican, though she said the last three years of polling data from her Arkansas Poll has demonstrated a rightward shift in independent voters, which convinces her that, at a minimum, the state finally has a competitive two-party system.

Republican pollster Clint Reed agrees.

"I think you're seeing a very healthy two-party system. If and when Republicans get the majority, I think you're looking at a pendulum that's going to swing back and forth much more often than it has certainly in our lifetime."

Asked in an interview if a healthy two-party system was on the horizon, Gov. Beebe said, "I don't know how healthy it is, but I think it's already here. You saw it in the last [session]. It was relatively close. Under any scenario, these people are going to have to work together, or it's going to end up like Washington, and I don't think that's going to go over too well with the people of Arkansas."

Even if Republicans don't take control, Beebe said, he believes the legislature will block the expansion of Medicaid in Arkansas under a provision in the Affordable Care Act that would add between 200,000 to 250,000 Arkansans to Medicaid rolls because it requires a three-fourths super-majority to appropriate federal money.

"If Republicans don't want it, it's not going to happen. Having said that, by the time folks figure out that there's a likelihood that their federal tax dollars are going to go to New York and Minnesota and Virginia and elsewhere and not going to go to Arkansas, that's going to have some effect on people."

The separate issue of how the state shores up the projected $350 million to $400 million shortfall in the Medicaid trust fund will likely be the focus of the upcoming legislative session. Beebe, who plans to unveil his budget proposal in the coming weeks, said he's looking to projected revenue growth and strategic cuts to Medicaid services without wholly eliminating programs to make up at least some of the difference. But additional money will be required. A tax is a non-starter in this legislative climate, he said. Meanwhile, Republicans have put forward a "SIMPLE Plan" that seems to be a mix of policy favored by the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and typical Republican planks — vouchers for private schools, less regulation, tax reform.

Beebe said Republicans' general plans with regard to cutting taxes do not take into account the financial impact cuts would have on essential state services. "Obviously if we have a Medicaid shortfall that can't totally be covered and is going to require some cuts then any additional loss of revenue by changing the income tax would exacerbate the situation."

Otherwise, Beebe said he's hoping to continue to push for more economic development and improving education in the state in the upcoming session. He said he also has a plan to further reduce the grocery tax, but he's not ready to share the details. Should Republicans take control of the legislature in November, he will be hard-pressed to get anything done, but his ability to articulate why Republican policies are bad for the state could prove crucial to the future of the Democratic Party in Arkansas.

Regardless of their party affiliation, Arkansas political observers agree that the state has remained in largely Democratic control for so long because of "uncommon talent," as University of Arkansas political scientist Parry terms it, leading the party, charismatic figures like Gov. Dale Bumpers, Gov. David Pryor, President Bill Clinton and Gov. Beebe. The future of the party will require emulating those leaders, Parry said.

"The Democrats who will succeed in this new competitive environment will focus on economic issues. They'll focus on what they'll call investment in the people resources in the state. They'll do it in a way that happens one person at a time, the old-school retail politics that's helped keep Democrats in power here for so long."

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