November aside, Arkansas GOP keeps rolling
May 3-9, 2021
By Dwain Hebda
The midterm elections as well as the impending conclusion of the Asa Hutchinson era as governor signals yet another opportunity for the Republican Party of Arkansas (RPA) to demonstrate its dominance among the Arkansas electorate.
And according to Seth Mays, spokesperson for the RPA, that’s precisely what the party has in mind.
“What brings us to where we are today and looking ahead to 2022, we have candidates announced for all constitutional offices,” he said. “There are incumbents in every Congressional district and John Boozman has announced that he’s running again for the U.S. Senate, so I think the health of the party is undoubtedly well.”
It’s been a transformative run for the GOP over the past few years, the latest milestone of which was achieving the first-ever supermajority in the Arkansas Senate, duplicating a feat achieved in the House for a couple of election cycles. Since 2015, every constitutional state office has been held by a Republican as has every seat on the state’s Congressional delegation. And it has all happened with incredible speed.
“Go back just to 2010, when Governor Mike Beebe was reelected in 75 out of 75 counties. We still had two Democratic U.S. Senators in Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor. The majority of county-level offices on up, were Democrat,” Mays said.
“Today, as we look broadly at the State of Arkansas and the state of the Republican Party, I think we can say pretty definitively this is the most Republican the state has ever been.”
Mays said two overriding factors have spurred the conservative revolution in Arkansas. First, is the use of technology to hold elected officials accountable.
“Technology has made us so in touch,” he said. “If you call yourself a pro-life Democrat, we can go back online now and pull up your record that shows you did not override Governor Beebe’s veto of two abortion bills.”
“It’s one thing to be able to say it in your district, but the folks in your district often didn’t know that what you said to them and how you voted on the floor here in Little Rock was different. In the modern era, that’s totally blown out. You can go to Arkleg.com and you can re-watch every debate that has happened.”
A second major driver for the Republicans has been the rise of women in the party’s highest reaches of power, which Mays says reflects the electorate to a tee.
“If you made a composite of who the average Arkansas voter is, she is a middle-aged mother with children living in a neighborhood like Benton or Bryant and she’s conservative,” May said. “She’s right of center. That’s who the average Arkansas voter is today.”
“As far as leadership, this party, from top to bottom, is run by the Federation of Republican Women and I mean that in a good way. We have the first elected chairwoman, right now, in Jonelle Fulmer. We had two chairwomen before, who were vice chairs that, for whatever reason, assumed the role. The first vice, the treasurer and the secretary, all of our district chairs, they’re all women. In fact, we only have two men serving as officers and that’s because the rules say we have to.”
“If you want to run for statewide office and I was to take you across the state and point out the people that you needed to talk to in Fort Smith, Northwest Arkansas, Little Rock, Jonesboro, the people who rule the roost are all going to be women.”
As the scales tipped in the GOP’s favor, conservative legislation has followed since Gov. Asa Hutchinson was elected in November 2014 through the 93rd General Assembly that ends on April 30. For every controversial measure – such as this session’s further tightening of abortion regulations, the overhaul of state election laws, a stand your ground bill, and legislation pertaining to transgender issues – there has been an equal number that has been applauded for reducing income taxes, pushing for coding and tech in schools and plowing resources into economic development, said the GOP spokeman.
With each win, the party’s dominance has been self-perpetuating; as Republicans maintain a stranglehold on so many offices, it further cuts into the pool of Democrats with relevant election or government experience. And that lack of experience is proving a hard hurdle to get over.
“I get a bit of a kick just reading in the news and the press releases of the Democratic Party saying they’re going to have a robust primary. As [former longtime GOP Chairman] Doyle Webb would say, ‘I remember when we had to talk like that,’” Mays said. “A robust primary on the Democratic side will be proven out when they actually have multiple candidates that have experience in politics and in government.”
In what is sure to be the state’s most publicized race, that of governor, the pattern appears to be playing out again. Less than 18 months to election day, early announced Democratic hopefuls include James “Rus” Russell, a mental health counselor; Anthony Bland, a Baptist minister and schoolteacher; and Supha Xayprasith-Mays, a community activist and entrepreneur. Only Bland has experience running for state office.
By contrast, the state GOP offers two high-profile politicos in former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. National pundits’ early predictions are a Republican walkover win.
“If we’re being honest with ourselves, and we calibrate the Republican candidates and the Democratic candidates, they’re not exactly on the same level,” Mays said. “That’s just to be frank.”
Still, for all of the advancements within the state, there’s no denying the impact of the loss of the White House and majorities in both the U.S. Senate and House last November and with it, the weight that a Donald Trump endorsement carried in many districts. Mays admitted to a period of political mourning following the general election but didn’t see it as severe enough to cause a mass exodus from the party, its platform or the mission at hand.
“I’ve seen a lot of headlines about independent identification is way up and people have really dropped off being Republican, as far as identifying with a party. We certainly have had some of that. That’s what happens when you lose an election,” he said. “It does have a bearing on the energy level of the party and I imagine, if you checked in with the DPA in March of 2017, they probably felt like, ‘Boy, we’ve lost our step and we need to get re-energized and get back at it.’ I think we’re just in a lull and that’s natural.”
“We hear the folks that have called into the party here and they really feel depressed, they’re just down, you know? They’re down on the feeling that things didn’t work out the way that they had hoped,” said Mays. “But you also hear people say, ‘Now’s the time to take back the House.’ Or, ‘In two years, we can take back the Senate.’ That’s the battle cry.”
1. After successful legislative session, Republican Party looks to maintain control of Arkansas’ political landscape through 2022 elections.
2. The GOP headquarters is located within walking distance from the State Capitol on Sixth Street in downtown Little Rock. The Republican Party of Arkansas dominated the recent 93rd General Assembly with a supermajority in the state House and Senate, passing over 600 new bills.