The New York Times does a well-written and probing deep dive into Arkansas politics. The story is familiar — how Arkansas has gone, slowly but surely, from one-party domination by Democrats to dead red. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Dixie flipped, but Arkansas lagged behind for years.
One popular theory for Arkansas holding off the GOP wave is that the state has been blessed with unusually strong Democratic talent — Bumpers, Clinton, David Pryor. The Times pays particular attention to Gov. Mike Beebe, the most popular governor in the nation. His “skills are such that he has been able to ward off the extinction of Democrats in this increasingly conservative state,” the Times writes. But now he’s term-limited, and, the Times writes, “many in the state say that Mr. Beebe, a long-serving Democrat, is the last of his kind.”
Of course, Arkansans have been talking about “last of a kind” Democrats for years. Still, if Republicans manage a big sweep in November, it will have the ring of truth this time around. The Times notes another change in the political landscape: that Beebe’s style of retail of politics — his gift for backslapping at the fish fry — may be less important than it once was, with uncountable millions in outside money pouring in to the state. Ubiquitous ads may pack more punch than handshakes these days. We’ll see.
Here’s the Times on Beebe’s wide range of support:
Mr. Beebe has won votes among the Walmart millionaires in the northwest part of the state around Bentonville and among the poor row-crop farmers in the southeast corner. He has won among those who hunt elk or alligator, and Arkansans like to brag that they can do both thanks to the state’s biodiversity. And he has won among those for whom President Obama’s name is an epithet.
The paper’s account of Beebe is rapturous — “tall and gray-haired with bright blue eyes and weathered skin … a roll-up-your sleeves pragmatist.” (Tall?) The best line on Beebe, though:
As one female political operative here put it, “He talks like molasses, and I want to have his babies.”
Even Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb managed a compliment, albeit a calculated attempt to score talking points against Democrats now running for office. “He’s a pragmatic Arkansas Democrat, and he is the last of them,” he said. Heh. Republicans always like Democrats better when they’re fixing to retire.
Here’s the Times’ gloss on what makes Arkansas unusual:
Ask people here why Arkansas has remained nominally competitive for Democrats, and most point to an odd race in 1968. That was when the state voted for Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican and millionaire son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., for governor; George C. Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who ran as an independent, for president; and Mr. Fulbright, a Democrat, for senator.
“We’re a fiercely independent state,” said Mike Ross, the Democrat running to replace Mr. Beebe.
Arkansans did not follow their neighbors’ lead as white rural voters in the Deep South abandoned the Democratic Party en masse. Just under 16 percent of the state’s population are African-Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Unlike other battleground states in play this midterm year, Arkansas has not experienced a vast demographic shift with newcomers who tend to skew liberal. That means the partisan battle is largely waged among the many poor and working-class white residents, a group that is culturally varied.
“If people know anything at all about Arkansas, they think of it as some Anglo-Saxon bastion of Southernness, but it really isn’t,” said Richard W. Davies, the executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, who pointed to Arkansas Indians and settlers from Germany, Italy and Serbia, among others. “We’re a little bit of a schizophrenic state as far as geography and hence culture,” he added.
Carlton Saffa, a Republican donor and tireless Twitter troll, told the Times, “We’re the last of the South to change, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t going to. We weren’t going to stay weird forever.”