The Republican stranglehold on the Arkansas state government is in jeopardy. Using a model developed by John Ray and Jesse Bacon that incorporates a blend of fundamentals (presidential approval rating, for example) and legislative district-level demography (such as household income and race), we find that Democrats are poised to break the GOP supermajority in the state’s House of Representatives this year. In fact, we estimate that as many as 16 of the 76 seats held by Republicans are likely to flip to Democrats in 2018.
The scale of such a progressive wave in Arkansas cannot be overstated. A flip of 16 or more seats between parties has only happened once in the last half century. That, of course, was in 2010* when an anti-Obama Republican wave crashed through a Democratic supermajority in the legislature. It marked the beginning of a GOP resurgence in Arkansas that, over the next decade, would hand conservatives control of all six congressional seats, the Governor’s Mansion and a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature. The election of Donald Trump is already doing the same for progressives across the rest of the South. Arkansas appears poised to join the burgeoning red state revolt.
Many of the seats that we expect Democrats to flip in 2018 will be obvious to close observers of Arkansas politics. House Districts 25 (part of Hot Springs and Garland County), 38 (North Little Rock), 65 (Conway and Perry counties) and 84 (Washington County) are perennial targets for both parties. But several of the seats our model identified as likely Democratic pickups proved surprising, including Districts 24 (part of Hot Springs), 28 (Saline County) and 96 (Rogers) — places where incumbent Republicans have gone unchallenged for far too long.
It’s important to note here that, of the 16 districts that we’ve identified as likely to flip to Democrats in 2018, 10 do not have a declared candidate yet. Those communities are precisely where the Democratic Party of Arkansas should be focused on recruiting a new generation of dynamic, first-time candidates.
I should also say that there are a variety of important variables that we have yet to account for in our model. The challenges that come from differing levels of candidate quality, fundraising, dark money campaign expenditure and a paper thin state Democratic Party infrastructure could all attenuate the progressive wave as it flows through Arkansas. Though we’ll eventually build those factors into our model, they are not factored into our current projections. But, if last year’s elections in Virginia, Oklahoma and Alabama taught us anything about the viability of the anti-Trump resistance in electoral politics, it’s this: No one knows much of anything about which races will be competitive, which candidates are electable and whether or not progressive values can win elections in the South. Before any establishment Democrats rush to tell me how different Arkansas is from those other places, know this: Oklahoma (65.3 percent), Alabama (62.1 percent) and Arkansas (60.6 percent) had comparable Republican presidential vote shares in 2016. Democrats cannot win where they do not field candidates and invest in organizing.
Those elections also revealed that progressives can win anywhere, even in places where the local Democratic Party is a shell of its Republican counterpart. In Alabama, a network of progressive activists — led by Indivisible, Woke Vote and many others — organized the ground game that delivered a Senate seat for Doug Jones in one of the nation’s most conservative states. In Virginia, a similar coalition of local Indivisible groups, Sister District activists and candidates recruited by Run For Something flipped control of the state’s House of Delegates and won a decisive gubernatorial victory for Ralph Northam. Neither of those victories would have been possible without the resistance.
A similar, nonpartisan infrastructure of progressive activists is maturing rapidly in Arkansas. Ozark Indivisible, Little Rock and Central Arkansas Indivisible, Boone County Indivisible, Northeast Arkansas Indivisible, Moms Demand and March on Arkansas are already organizing in support of progressive candidates. A few are even fielding candidates of their own. Democratic office-seekers would be foolish not to seek these groups’ support in 2018.
As progressives gear up for this year’s elections in Arkansas, it’s important to remember just how long it took Republicans to seize power. Though their wave began in 2008, the GOP had to continue making gains through 2016 to garner its now-absolute control over state government. Democrats cannot erase those gains in a single cycle. But they can use 2018 as the first step in a multicycle effort to reclaim the state legislature and erase the corruption that comes from single-party rule.
Though I worked in a Democratic administration, I don’t have much faith in the party’s ability to get many things right. But I do think the donors who prop it up and the grassroots organizations that elect its candidates should view last year’s wins as evidence of something important: The time to invest in politics is now and the place to do it is in the South.
Billy Fleming is the research director of the Ian McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D. in city and regional planning. He is a co-author of the “Indivisible Guide,” a co-founder of Data Refuge and a former Associated Student Government president at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
*A previous version of this column mistakenly dated state Republicans ending the Democratic supermajority in the state House and Senate as 2008. It also misstated that Republicans have had a stranglehold on state government for more than a decade.