Most years around this time, political scientists come together at the Arkansas Political Science Association’s annual meeting for a session in which we provide our analysis of where Arkansas politics has just been (if a general election has just happened) or where it’s going (if we’re at the start of an election year). Last week, we all lamented that Arkansas’s politics are less distinctive than at any point in the state’s history and agreed there is a stable Republican statewide majority for the foreseeable future. We also were in consensus that a combination of demographic shifts in an Arkansas with more metropolitan voters and a reaction against President Trump’s leadership in those areas creates a dynamic where Democrats are on their way to some renewed success in 2018. While a statewide “wave” is not coming, more localized ripples driven by turnout patterns in those areas that favor Democrats should be expected.
Of course, even if voters are prepared to do so, electoral success only occurs if a party has “products,” i.e. candidates, for those voters to “purchase.” As our session occurred a day after filing for office ended for 2018, it was clear that Arkansas’s Democrats had done decidedly better in fielding candidates in 2018 than in recent cycles. It was also clear that traditional political outsiders represent the bulk of those candidates. When a party that has been disempowered begins to rebuild, it creates new opportunities for those from groups that have historically not had a place at the table where policy decisions are made. That is certainly the case with the field of candidates running for federal and state office as Democrats in 2018.
Leading the pack in this cycle are significant numbers of women candidates. Although women voters gained access to the ballot box relatively early in the state (starting in 1917 in the primary elections that then really mattered), for most of the state’s history women have been the consummate outsiders, with only a sprinkling of women in elective office in the state for much of the 20th century. After term limits hit the state legislature, there was a brief moment when the percentage of women in elective office compared well to other Southern states (a low bar to be sure). While the total number of women has grown a bit in recent years, that growth has been much lower than in other states, and only 10 states nationally now have a smaller percentage of women in their state legislative bodies than does Arkansas (at 18.5 percent).
Based on the filing patterns for 2018, that percentage is about to increase. Almost all of the women already in office — Republicans and Democrats alike — are running for re-election and, with rare exceptions, will be returned. But, they’ll be joined by others. Two dozen other Democratic women who are not incumbents are running for state and federal office and a handful of new Republicans are also seeking office.
This did not happen accidentally. For several years, Women Lead Arkansas has led nonpartisan trainings for women interested in engaging in state and local politics; a number of those women have taken the plunge this year. As fundraising is often a key barrier for outsiders, more recently a PAC was created to help fund progressive women Democrats (what it calls “Dameocrats”) in state races. In the aftermath of President Trump’s victory, however, women concerned about the president and his policies have been particularly inspired to run in Arkansas and around the nation. As the year went on, with the rise of the #metoo moment, the energy for female participation in elective office grew. There is little doubt now that 2018 will be another “year of the woman” in politics, likely the most consequential to date.
In Arkansas, some of these women are facing male candidates in primaries who are also outsiders and would themselves make history. Maumelle House candidate Joshua Price, who faces Monica Ball, notes that he would be the first Asian American elected to the state legislature. In the heart of Fayetteville, progressive attorney Nicole Clowney seeks to replace Rep. Greg Leding; her opponent — Fayetteville City Council Member Mark Kinion — would be the first openly gay man to serve in state office.
Other outsiders pepper the list of Democratic candidates. From those of South Asian origin (like 1st District congressional candidate Chintan Desai) to organized labor activists (like state AFL-CIO president Alan Hughes, who’s running for a Hot Springs area House seat) the slate of Democratic candidates looks different from those of the past. Finally, while Arkansas has been friendlier than many states to young candidates historically (a pack of thirtysomethings, most notably Bill Clinton, burst into state office in the 1970s), this set of Democratic candidates has an average age decidedly lower than is typical.
Despite their factionalism, Republicans will continue to dominate Arkansas politics overall following the 2018 elections, but there is some sense that Democrats have begun to find their voice with a new (and very different) cast of characters to serve as a foundation for the party moving forward.