Blue wave? Not quite in Arkansas

November 19-25, 2018

By Jacob Kauffman


This past election held a lot of potential to deliver either a rebuke or affirmation of the Trump presidency, as well as Republican rule in Arkansas. In a sense it delivered both.


Looking at the nation at large, Democratic voters dominated the electorate with the party picking up 32 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That could climb to 40 Democratic seats by the time all the recounts – or actually counting absentee ballots, rather – are completed.


Democrats cheer the growing influence and success of women running for office, which includes a number of veterans and the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. This of course, viewed through the prism of the Trump presidency, is an especially potent message.


However, Democrats suffered a few setbacks in the U.S. Senate. The election notably came on the heels of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. There is a potential for further Supreme Court picks under the current administration and Republicans may have secured an easier path for confirmation. However, even in the Senate Democrats have some room to cheer. Democrats took over a long-held Republican U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Once again, the victor was a woman. Kyrsten Sinema at 42 is one of the youngest members of the Senate and the first ever openly bisexual member. Progressives aren’t hiding and they are winning.


Or, at least in some places.


Back home in Arkansas, Republicans piled on resounding vote totals on Election Night. Incumbent Congressmen Rick Crawford (First District), French Hill (Second District), Steve Womack (Third District), and Bruce Westerman (Fourth District) all won by comfortable margins.


The Blue Wave concept was represented in a stock of young Democratic candidates, including Hayden Shamel in the sprawling Fourth District and the son of immigrants, Chintan Desai in the First District. Hard working, young, and bright candidates stepped up in Arkansas but nonetheless were absolutely stampeded. Crawford easily disposed of Desai by a 69 to 29 percent margin. Shamel barely cleared 30 percent herself, losing to Westerman 67-31 percent.


Arkansas Republicans are in the driver’s seat when it comes to federal office.


You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned that one race – the one that drew everyone’s attention, and money. If there was a Blue Wave in Arkansas we would have seen it in the election of Clarke Tucker as the next U.S. Congressman from central Arkansas’s Second Congressional District. But it didn’t happen.


The young, experienced and charming Tucker mounted a tremendous campaign and got closer than any Democrat in years drawing 46 percent of the vote. He clobbered incumbent French Hill in the district’s most populous county, Pulaski, with 59 percent of the vote.


But as has long been known by Republicans, and suspected by Democrats, that doesn’t matter too much when you’re getting beat badly in the district’s six other counties. Hill easily won Conway County (60-37), Faulkner County (61-35), Saline County (68-29), Perry County (69-28), Van Buren County (72-25), and White County (75-22).


The narrative of the migrant caravan, MS-13, and fighting the “Nancy Pelosi agenda” carried more weight than Tucker’s well-advertised promise to protect pre-existing conditions and healthcare.


Republicans look set to continue pursuing their Party’s agenda in Washington D.C., to the satisfaction of the majority of Arkansas voters. Democrats will turn frustrations to the 2020 U.S. Senate election with Tom Cotton. In the meantime the Mueller investigations, fluctuating soybean prices from the trade war, and the possibility of serious cuts to social services to pay for tax cuts loom ahead as factors out of Arkansas politico’s control.


While the federal government’s composition fleshes out, the state government readies to enter its next legislative session in January with Republicans maintaining supermajorities in both the Arkansas House and the Arkansas Senate. After the midterms Republicans retained control of every Constitutional office as well.


It was always a longshot for Democrats to gain any of Arkansas’s Constitutional offices this cycle. Governor Asa Hutchinson regularly has one of the highest approval ratings in the nation and has a solid grip over the governing direction of most of his party. The state’s economy is doing relatively well and the governor has been successful in pushing his signature programs like computer coding.


In this atmosphere a young, first-time politician entered the fray. Jared Henderson stepped down from heading Arkansas’s branch of Teach for America to challenge Hutchinson with bold, progressive ideas. He called for teachers in Arkansas to have the best pay in the nation and rejected efforts to cull people off of Medicaid expansion.


However popular specific provisions of his multi-facet platform may be, voters opted by historically wide margins to keep their Republican governor in office. Hutchinson carried 65 percent of the vote and came close to taking Henderson under 50 percent in Democratic Pulaski County.


For Arkansas Democrats, a solid victory this election – would have been to take away the Republican supermajority in the Arkansas House. Less of a Blue Wave (a term only a coastal dweller, and by default liberal elitist would conjure) and more of a brown, muddy wake seemed reasonable.


By securing 25 of the 100 seats it would have given the Democrats the ability to form a bloc that could strongly influence all appropriations votes, which take a three-fourths vote to pass. Democrats are close but after Election Day no closer than before.


Women once again took center stage for the Democrats with Denise Garner ousting incumbent Republican Charlie Collins in Fayetteville. Collins was best known for passing guns on campus legislation. Voters in the district that’s home to the University of Arkansas rejected Collins. Northwest Arkansas also provided the other Democratic pickup with Megan Godfrey winning in Springdale by just over 30 votes, in a district with a Latinx presence.


But while Democrats finally showed gains in the much promised fertile ground of northwest Arkansas, they continued to see losses in rural east Arkansas including Augusta and Pocahontas, making the night a wash in terms of House control.


Elsewhere on the ballot voters approved casinos and a higher minimum wage. And as we’ll all see more of in the weeks ahead, there is a run-off election for the Little Rock Mayoral contest between Frank Scott, Jr. and Baker Kurrus.


That promises a level of competition not seen elsewhere on an Arkansas ballot in quite a while.