It’s a journey of a thousand miles, no doubt, but there are some Republicans who are quietly taking heart from last night’s results and seeing them potentially as a new day for the party — a party perhaps cut loose from old ruling cliques and, particularly, the pervasive influence of the hard-core Religious Right.

The pieces of their case: Vickey Boozman’s defeat for state House by Tim Summers of Bentonville, a converted Democrat. The Boozman name isn’t golden? This should shiver bro-in-law U.S. Rep. John Boozman. This year, if any year, might have been a year for a strong Democratic challenge of the colorless, party-line-toting Boozman. In any case, Summers showed that a center-right conservative can win in Benton County. It shows, for sure, that the business community is tired of the religious jihadists.

Some of the same themes emerged in Courtney Henry’s smashing defeat, even in Benton County, of a Hutchinson family father-in-law, Ron Williams, for Court of Appeals. Many big-name business Republicans backed her. It’s a non-partisan race, but she’s a Democrat, make no mistake.

Religious Righter Gunner Delay was beaten soundly in his candidacy for a district judgeship in Fort Smith.

Hard-core righter Randy Minton lost his legislative bid in Lonoke County. Ann Clemmer, a self-avowed Rockefeller Republican, won the Bryant-area Republican primary for House without a runoff and far more Republicans than Democrats turned out. That seat could be a pickup for the Republicans. Kelly Eichler, who had a well-organized, well-financed and smashing Republican primary win for a House seat in Little Rock’s Heights, has an uphill climb in the general election (I believe and hope), but she’s certainly more of a center-right candidate. She’s certainly pleasing to the business conservatives who’ve chafed at the religious bomb-throwers in their party.

“It’s a great sign,” said one long-time party operative who said there’d been a concerted effort to seek more mainstream candidates.

This brings us, in a roundabout way, to the premiere legislative race of the fall  — Democrat Joe White of Conway against Sen. Gilbert Baker, the Republican Party leader. It could be a half-million-dollar race, the most expensive legislative race in Arkansas history. Gov. Mike Beebe, hugely popular, has made it a priority to beat Baker. The Republican Party has made it a priority to re-elect Baker.

Wrinkle: Baker linked up with The Brotherhood, the anti-progressive controlling clique of the Senate. One of The Brotherhood’s number, Sen. Irma Hunter Brown, was beaten last night by Joyce Elliott. Another staunch anti-Brotherhood senator, Sen. Jim Luker, was re-elected. Jim McLean of Batesville campaigned heavily on the evils of the Brotherhood in eking out a House win over Sen. Jack Critcher’s wife.

In a year where the word “change” seems to be on every tongue, Baker’s association with The Brotherhood might not be a postive. White, a legislative newcomer, won’t be burdened by charges of backroom dealing and a demonstrated willingness to give up party principle for political ends. That is going to be one heckuva race.

PS ON THE BROTHERHOOD: It’ll still be a corrosive factor, unfortunately. In changes thanks to term limits, Johnny Key and David Wyatt coming in for Shawn Womack and Jack Critcher are believed to be Brotherhood for Brotherhood changes. Cecile Bledsoe for David Bisbee brings in a Brotherhooder for an Otherhooder. Larry Teague for Jim Hill and David Johnson for Jim Argue are Other to Other. Elliott for Brown is an Other for a Brother. So those six new senators are a wash in the political lineup, with the Brotherhooder Gil Baker’s race yet to be decided. If Baker holds his seat, observers figure The Brotherhood still can count up to 21 votes. We can only hope that the demonstrated baggage with the label and being viewed as a craven horse trader in a time of change might be viewed as somewhat less desirable in 2009. Vain hope in the Arkansas legislature, I know.