The First Test of GOP Dominance in Arkansas
Arkansas is emerging from a swift political power transfer, with Sen. John Boozman suddenly finding himself the new dean of an all-Republican congressional delegation.
Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett wrote, just before the new year, that 2014 was the year “old Arkansas died.” Republicans won the governorship and the six other statewide constitutional offices, they expanded their majorities in the state legislature and, for the first time, the GOP captured each of the state’s six seats in Congress — the last being that of Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who received just 39 percent of the vote. Boozman was the lone Republican from the state on Capitol Hill when he was seated for his first full House term in 2003, and his Senate re-election race next year offers the first big test of the new GOP dominance. He’s prepping for a competitive race, he told CQ Roll Call recently, but Boozman didn’t sound overly concerned — even with the likelihood of a Clinton at the top of the ticket.
“Although they’re well liked, it didn’t appear that Hillary and President [Bill] Clinton had any bearing on what went on in Arkansas the last go-round,” Boozman said from an armchair in his Senate office. “I really don’t see that they have any coattails in Arkansas.”
Democrats didn’t go down in 2014 without a fight. The party spent big on both the Senate race and the Little Rock-based 2nd District open seat, races that hurled the state capital’s media airtime prices into competition with the largest cities in the country. At this early point, don’t expect that will happen again anytime soon.
Each member of the Arkansas congressional delegation is now a Republican and was elected to their current post in either 2010 or 2014 — both GOP wave years and the midterms of President Barack Obama. The president’s time in the White House proved to break the last straw of an inevitable statewide push to the right, following the rest of the South.
“Right now, Arkansas is definitely red and went red with the message of, ‘We’ve got to change things and Obama is bad,’” said Robert McLarty, a longtime Democratic consultant in the state. “That Obama message was enough to wipe the deck. We saw a change that could have potentially happened over 10 years happen over four years. But I don’t know if that’s here to stay.”
But even if things turn around for Arkansas Democrats with Hillary Rodham Clinton at the top of the ticket, with no Democratic statewide officeholders or members of Congress, it’s not immediately clear the party would have a top-tier challenger to Boozman.
“The fundamental question is, is Arkansas more competitive in a post-Obama era?” another Democratic strategist involved in the midterms said. “Can you overcome being just a Democrat or a Hillary Clinton Democrat? Perhaps, and that’s the question that will be tested in Arkansas in 2016.”
Boozman was born in Shreveport, La., raised in Fort Smith, Ark., and attended the University of Arkansas before leaving for optometry school. He played football at Arkansas — his No. 55 jersey is framed prominently on his office wall — lining up at left tackle under offensive line coach Joe Gibbs, the hall of famer who went on to coach the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl victories.
Sprinkled throughout the senator’s answers in the interview were sayings Boozman picked up from legendary Arkansas coach Frank Broyles and former Rep. Tom Osborne, who had been a popular coach at Nebraska.
He joined Osborne in the House after winning a special election in November 2001, succeeding Asa Hutchinson, who resigned to direct the Drug Enforcement Administration during the Bush administration and was elected governor in 2014. A year later, Mark Pryor defeated one-term Sen. Tim Hutchinson, who was the first Republican to win a Senate seat in Arkansas since Reconstruction.
Now that he’s surrounded in the delegation by members of his own party, former Boozman staffers can be found in leadership positions with other Arkansas representatives. That includes the chiefs of staff to Reps. Bruce Westerman and Steve Womack, as well as the campaign manager to freshman Rep. French Hill.
Despite being the lone Republican until 2011, Boozman said collaboration was never an issue.
“We don’t always agree up here as far as federal policy, but when it comes to Arkansas the delegation truly is united,” said Boozman, whose staff used to play Pryor’s in an annual softball game. (Team Boozman won all four.) “That’s how it has been in the past, and that’s how I see it going forward in the future. Everybody really does work together well.”
Boozman returned to Capitol Hill less than two months after emergency heart surgery last year to repair a torn aorta. He said he’s fine now and was well enough to hit the trail for the numerous Republicans vying for office in Arkansas last fall.
The senator’s campaign fundraising was sacrificed last year to focus on raising and spending $390,000 through his leadership PAC during the 2014 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Federal Election Commission report for his Senate campaign showed he had just $152,000 in the bank as of September.
The senator, who has never won a congressional race with less than 56 percent of the vote, has retained general consultant Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who led his defeat of Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln in 2010. They’ve put together a finance team, and Sanders is currently laying out the campaign staff structure ahead of an official rollout in the next few months.
The daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders called Obama “the greatest asset for the Republican Party in Arkansas” over the past few cycles. She pointed to former Sens. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers, as well as Lincoln and Mark Pryor, as examples of moderate Democrats whose retail skills kept the party in play before the president was elected in 2008.
She said Republicans are likely to remain the dominant party in the state for the immediate future, but said, “I don’t think anybody has a permanent lock on a state.”
“My guess is after Republicans are in power for a while and people start to get angry at government, as they kind of stay angry at government, they’ll give Republicans a chance to fix it,” Sanders said by phone. “And if everything’s not perfect, which it won’t be, in 10, 12 years you’ll see a resurgence of Democrats.”
Boozman offered a similar sentiment earlier in the day.
“I don’t think it was about people all of a sudden embracing Republicans,” he said. “I think it was more about people wanting change. … They’ve given us an opportunity, and we need to govern and do a good job or we’ll be back in the same situation.”
Alabama-based Democratic consultant John Anzalone, whose firm polled extensively in Arkansas last cycle, said national dynamics invariably change over time. Obama and Pryor didn’t make things any easier on the Democrats running down-ballot in 2014, but Anzalone pointed to voters in the state overwhelmingly approving a minimum wage increase as just one reason his party shouldn’t give up hope — even if it means being patient.
“It might not be 2016,” he said, “but I actually think in Arkansas, down the line, we’ll see that there’s going to be competitive races for state legislature, statewide races and then the congressionals. But right now everyone is just so shell-shocked and depressed.”