The last two election cycles redefined Arkansas politics. In 2014, the three distinguishing elements of Arkansas’s politics — provincialism, personalism and populism — with roots back to the McMath era of the middle of the 20th century, died simultaneously as a Tom Cotton-style Republicanism roared into dominance in the state. In 2016, Donald Trump’s ascendency with white rural voters in the state, lacking any other answers to their economic and social frustrations, cemented even further the GOP advantage in Arkansas. This year’s elections, on the other hand, while not fundamentally changing any of the truths about the politics of the state established by the previous two cycles, did suggest that the future of the state’s politics appears a tad more complicated.
In the “more of the same” category, Arkansas’s Democrats lost two additional state legislative seats from rural districts in 2018. Democratic Party of Arkansas leader Michael John Gray (D-Augusta) and state Rep. Scott Baltz (D-Pocahontas) ceded the final two mostly white, rural districts in the state to their Republican challengers in razor-thin races. However, in the “this feels different” category, Democrats evened out those loses with two victories in Northwest Arkansas as Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville) and Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) both beat incumbents. Garner’s victory over Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) was commanding, while Godfrey’s close win in the heavily Latino district in the heart of Springdale was more unexpected. Across Republican-held districts in Northwest Arkansas and western and northern Pulaski County, several other Democratic candidates ran strong races that got them within spitting distance of wins.
These new Democratic successes (and near-successes) were driven by the combination of a backlash to Trump in the electorates of true suburbs and high-quality candidates — mostly self-activated by their angst about the outcome of the 2016 elections — who ran campaigns that combined effective progressive messaging with strong field operations. Continued reaction to a Trump-dominated GOP nationally could get Democrats a few more legislative seats in the near future, and continued transformation in the Bella Vista-Fayetteville corridor could begin to move the needle in the 3rd Congressional District generally.
However, a wall has shown itself to the power of demographic change to produce statewide wins: Many of the areas typically called “suburbs” in Arkansas are instead “exurbs.” This distinction is a vital one in the Trump era. These areas continue to identify as small towns detached emotionally from their metropolitan areas, unlike the quickly diversifying suburbs that have rejected Trump from Orange County to Philadelphia. For instance, Democrat Clarke Tucker ran up very good numbers in the urbanized/suburbanized parts of Pulaski County, but hit a red wall when his campaign crossed the county line into the exurbs of Saline and Faulkner counties. That sent U.S. Rep. French Hill back to Washington for two years.
Much about the future of the state’s politics will be determined by those who draw legislative and congressional district lines. Assuming that GOP-dominated political bodies draw these districts following the 2020 census, the creation of districts that dilute suburban areas with exurban and rural voters and are thus secure from Democratic intrusion will be the norm for much of the next decade. However, a state constitutional amendment that would shift the responsibility for drawing district lines to an independent commission is being readied for the gathering of petition signatures. Signs are quite positive that it will pass if it gets to the 2020 ballot and it would create a fairer playing field for the redistricting process. Of course, in Arkansas, that pathway to the ballot is often a tricky one for citizen initiatives.
Moreover, as long as Arkansas remains a state where civic participation, including at the ballot box, remains exceptionally low, Arkansas’s Democrats will remain moribund. In 2018, Arkansas had the third lowest turnout in the nation with just at four in 10 eligible voters participating. While national turnout soared over a dozen points higher than the last midterm election in 2014, Arkansas’s turnout only barely exceeded its percentage four years ago (where, admittedly, a high-intensity U.S. senate race topped the ballot). Among other efforts at enhanced civic engagement in the state, there needs to be a sustained voter registration effort in Arkansas to register tens of thousands of currently disenfranchised voters and then activate them when elections arrive, educating and aiding them in the new voter identification requirements now in place. In this work, Stacy Abrams’ nonpartisan “New Georgia Project” that registered 200,000 voters in that state and transformed the electorate serves as an excellent model.
So, 2018 provides faint rays of hope for progressive change in Arkansas. Turning those rays into real change remains a decidedly more complicated endeavor.