Relish this moment. It’s a rare thing to suffer a defeat so complete that it couldn’t get any worse. Yeah, Clarke Tucker won House District 35, the state’s effective minimum wage will rise by a whole dollar in a couple of years, and legislative ethics rules just became tighter. But short of Arkansan voters writing in Lyndon LaRouche for governor en masse, last night’s midterm results are about as bad for Arkansas as they could possibly be. (Here are the full, currently unofficial results from the Secretary of State.)
While Dave Ramsey was partying with gleeful Republicans on election night, I slouched around the Democratic watch parties downtown in the rain, watching the mood decay from anxious to anguished over the course of the evening and asking vague questions of stricken Democrats. Why did this happen? What’s next for the party? What’s next for the state?
I started out at the Mark Pryor event at the Doubletree Hotel. The minute polls closed at 7:30, CNN called the race for Tom Cotton — it was clear from the beginning the margins were just insurmountable — but Pryor’s staff held off on his concession speech for an hour or so. Stuck in limbo, I milled around the room with the rest of the damned and tried my best not to resent being forced to participate in the shared semi-delusion that we were all waiting raptly for a big surprise. I ordered two drinks from the open bar, discovered it wasn’t an open bar after all, and had to beg $14 in cash off a gracious friend.
I turned to a friendly couple in their late 50s standing nearby. “How’d we get to this point?” I asked.
“There’s so much outside money coming into the state,” said the wife with a weary sort of urgency. “It’s Obama, Obama, Obama, all of this stuff … people respond out of fear, they vote against their self-interest. … but it’s really the outside money. They hire people like crazy in those small towns.” Her husband shook his head.
“I think the money is despicable, it’s awful,” he said, “but it’s not the reason why … I think the character of the state has changed.” Progressives and what they stand for are simply on the retreat here, he said. “I think we’re 40 percent of the state now.”
Frederick Gentry, an administrator in Little Rock city government, told me Republicans would have to temper their ideology. “At the end of the day we’ve got to balance our budget, but also recognize we’ve got needs — transportation, the private option. Repealing the private option can only hurt them. Too many people depend on it, no matter how much they rail against it. … If they decide to really go against everything, it’ll hurt them in the long run, so they should proceed with caution.”
Over Frederick’s shoulder, on one of the TVs mounted next to the stage, I watched state legislative returns begin to appear along the bottom of the screen and frowned. Though only a few precincts were reporting, Arkansas legislative seats were trending red in race after race. Hmm. That wasn’t supposed to happen. The polls said for weeks that Cotton would almost certainly take the U.S. Senate seat and that Asa Hutchinson would trounce Mike Ross in the gubernatorial, but we’d hoped right up until the election that the Democrats might pull off some upsets in down-ballot races and reclaim the Arkansas House of Representatives.
The crowd tightened up, suddenly. Pryor strode on stage, his smile genial and rueful, and a second later his broad face appeared on both flanking television screens in what was probably his last big televised moment as Arkansas’s senator. The sound was turned down, but I was standing close enough to one TV to hear the faint echo of his words murmuring across the airwaves on a couple seconds of delay. “Let me just start by saying, to God be the glory,” the senator began, and wrapped up his goodbyes fairly quickly. It’s hard not to imagine there wasn’t an element of relief in his composure. From the crowd there was hearty applause, and then release, and then people went looking for drinks and commiseration .
I’d intended to drop by Nate Steel’s watch party at Gus’s Fried Chicken, but by the time I left the Pryor event, the writing was on the wall for the attorney general’s race. The AG’s office, along with every other constitutional office in the state, now belonged to the Republicans. (When you look at the 20+ point margins on the secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and land commissioner races, it seems almost like a triumph that Steel lost to Leslie Rutledge by a mere 8 points. Just kidding.)
By the time I walked over to the other big Dem event downtown, Ross’s party at the Marriott, the mood had turned substantially darker. Maybe that’s because the Ross campaign had held out more defiant hope til the bitter end than Pryor’s camp…or maybe because by that point in the night the true scale of the devastation was becoming clear.
The Dems weren’t going to retake the state House after all. Instead, they were hemorrhaging seats left and right. The Times had been watching a half dozen legislative races in the Northeast corner of the state, a region that a friend had glibly declared the “Ohio of Arkansas” since it seemed to contain a number of new swing districts based on recent elections. Every single one of those Northeast Arkansas races went Republican. And hard-right, Tea Party-backed candidates destroyed moderates in West Little Rock, North Little Rock, Malvern, Arkadelphia, Northwest Arkansas. And entrenched rural Democrats that almost everyone assumed were wholly safe went down too: reps like Tommy Thompson, Tommy Wren, John Catlett. As of Wednesday afternoon, the GOP has picked up 13 seats in the House, widening their majority in that chamber from 51 to 64; two other races will likely require a recount.
As I walked into the Marriott, a live band set up in one corner was playing that insufferable hit “Happy”, I suppose for the sake of grotesque irony. Ross himself was hanging around, shaking hands and looking grim. “Well, we might as well have just set that $7 million on fire,” I overheard one Ross staffer say.
I spotted Rep. Charles Armstrong, a Little Rock Dem who didn’t face a challenger this year, and asked him his thoughts. He shook his head sadly, philosophically. It wasn’t just Arkansas, he noted — Republicans were marching to victory in crucial senatorial and gubernatorial elections in North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Kentucky, and on and on and on.
“We’re like the children of Israel right now — lost in the wilderness. Is it going to be for 40 years?” he asked rhetorically. It doesn’t have to be that way, he said.
In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites earned their 40 year exile in the desert through various rebellions against Jehovah, especially in their reluctance to fight for possession of the Promised Land. God promised deliverance to Canaan; the Israelites balked, afraid to enjoin battle. Fine, said God, if you won’t fight for what should be yours, have it your way — wander around in circles until a new generation comes around.
I found two staffers embracing, one red-eyed and the other openly weeping. “Listen, Clarke Tucker won, that’s our one thing, that’s our one thing,” said the slightly more collected one, trying to convince her companion and probably herself. “That’s good, right? Clarke Tucker?” They hugged more tightly.
I approached them and asked if they’d like to vent to a reporter. The distraught woman managed a wavery smile. “I…think that might not be a very good idea right now,” she said.
Probably the best thing I heard all night came from state Sen. Joyce Elliott, who I passed on the stairs just as I was arriving at Ross’s party. As one of the strongest liberal voices in Arkansas government, Elliott knows what defeat and marginalization feel like.
“I’ve been a minority three times over all my life,” Elliott told me. “I’m a progressive, I’m a woman and I’m African American. I know about being in the minority! So, all I can say is — bring it on!” She laughed loudly, defiantly, and I had to join in. The glum faces streaming down the nearby escalators shot disapproving glances in my direction. Then, she hustled her way down the stairs and out into the rainy night.