Politics and Governance

America’s Political Transformation or Just a Change in the Razorback Nation?

This Op-Ed is part of a series of Op-Ed dialogues with partnering public policy schools. 

In the 2014 midterm elections, Americans sent a clear message—they are currently displeased with the liberal policies of the Obama Administration.  Republicans, moderates, and independents overwhelmingly voted for Republicans in an attempt to reign in the administration and to prevent any further left wing legislation.  Considering the imbalance of power before the elections, specifically the Democrat Senate majority and the Democrat Executive branch, the switch of controlling parties in the U.S. Senate after midterm elections is not a new phenomenon. Four influential Arkansans recently spoke on a panel at the Political Animals Club in Little Rock, Arkansas, about the midterm election and its implications for Arkansas and the nation. Skip Rutherford, former Chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas and current Dean of the Clinton School of Public Service (CSPS), said that the nationwide elections results are not indicative of a new, long-lasting national trend.  (S. Rutherford, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  Rutherford compared the 2014 midterm election to the midterm elections of 1958, 1972, and 1995.  (S. Rutherford, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  During these elections, Americans voted to change the controlling party of the U.S. legislative branch, creating a U.S. Senate and House that were not of the same party as the president.  Therefore, midterm elections that create a legislative majority diverse from that of the executive branch are a normal occurrence in American politics.  The 2014 national election results are politics as usual—voters retaliating against current national officeholders and unpopular policies.

While the elections do not herald a new trend nationally, they do represent a change in Arkansas (M. Brantley, R. Brock, J. Brummett, & S. Rutherford, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  Once an established swing state, Arkansas is now a state whose voters toe the Republican Party line (M. Brantley, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  As a former legislative staffer for Mike Ross, retired democratic Congressman for Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District and 2014 gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas, I thought Arkansans would choose Congressman Ross over his Republican opponent Asa Hutchinson.  I believed Arkansans would set aside their personal views about President Obama and vote for Congressman Ross based on his former voting record—he opposed “Obamacare”—and their past support for conservative Democrats in the state.  However, I was wrong, and I am beginning to understand why.

Arkansans primarily rejected Democrats in local elections because they equated Arkansas’s Democrats with the national Democratic Party.  This is a significant divergence from the norm in Arkansas.  Dr. Jay Barth, a political analyst in Arkansas and author of Ripe for Reform: Arkansas as a Model for Social Change, lectured to one of my CSPS classes on the nature of politics in Arkansas.  He implied that while Arkansans generally supported Republican candidates in past national elections, Arkansans did not always apply the same reasoning to statewide elections.  (J. Barth, personal communication, September 2013).  Arkansas Democrats are traditionally more conservative than their national counterparts, which has appealed to voters in Arkansas and often resulted in voter support for statewide Democrats even when the state elected Republicans to national office.  (J. Barth, personal communication, September 2013).  Therefore, traditionally, Arkansans have supported candidates—regardless of party affiliation—who best aligned with Arkansas’s traditional and populist values. (J. Barth, personal communication, September 2013).  The midterm elections represent a stark delineation from Arkansas’s past voting record.  Statewide rejection of Democrats meant that Arkansas’s Democratic candidates’ unique policies and positions fell on deaf ears.  Instead of considering state Democratic candidates’ positions on issues in the recent election, which—for the most part—were not considerably different from their Republican counterparts, Arkansans rejected conservative southern Democrats and toed the Republican Party line.

Arkansas’s transition from a swing state to an established Republican state is primarily due to President Obama and his liberal policies.  Roby Brock, Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics and another panelist at the Political Animals Club, explained that Republicans progressively gained ground during the 2014 campaign season because of their anti-Obama rhetoric, as well as President Obama’s inaction on big issues, such as Ebola and ISIS (R. Brock, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  President Obama’s inaction during the election cycle, coupled with the Republican campaign against him, resulted in Democrats losing support from Arkansas’s moderate, conservative, and independent voters (R. Brock, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  According to Rutherford,  “Big Republicans,” concerned with economics and taxes, voted with “Little Republicans,” concerned with Ebola, immigration, and guns.  As a result, Democrats lost nearly all middle class and working class voters in Arkansas (S. Rutherford, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  Brock echoed Rutherford and said Arkansas’s Democrats had truly lost the white, middle-class, and rural conservative votes, and it would be 30 to 40 years before the Democratic Party could appeal to these demographics again (R. Brock, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  While President Obama and his policies may not have had an effect on voters nationwide, they have made a tremendous, lasting impact on voters and candidates in Arkansas.

While I do not think Americans, or more specifically Arkansans, were wise to reject everything “Democrat,” I do believe our country is best served by balanced legislative and executive branches.  If the branches of government were balanced between a Democrat Executive branch and a Republican U.S. Senate before the elections, it is very probable that voters would have felt no need to retaliate at the polls; no one party’s policies would have reined, and Republicans and Democrats would have had a balance of representation and control in our national government.  For instance, had a Republican Senate majority existed during the debate on the Affordable Care Act, the branches would have been balanced, and Republicans potentially would have had more influence on the individual nuances within the proposed healthcare legislative package. A balanced government could even have prevented the overwhelming loss for Democrats during the 2014 midterm elections; both Democrats and Republicans would have been clearly represented and none could say their position was not considered.

The combination of a Democratic executive branch, a Democratic Senate, and the passage of unpopular policies gave Republicans fuel to oust Democrats in the 2014 elections (M. Brantley & R. Brock, personal communication, November 13, 2014).  While the election did not create a new national trend, it did change the dynamics of politics in Arkansas.  Today, a moderate, unaffiliated candidate will have a much better chance of being elected to office if he/she chose to run as a Republican, whereas traditionally a moderate candidate could have good odds running as a Republican or a Democrat.  The Democratic Party of Arkansas has much to do if it is to regain the demographics it has so obviously lost.  The questions remain: what can the Democratic Party do to attract voters in Arkansas, and how long, if ever, will the party regain support in statewide elections?  As a moderate Democrat—and a woman who believes everyone deserves a voice—I believe balance is key to the governing process.  If balance is not maintained, elections result in “complete wipeout revolutions” and “political earthquakes” that can alter the established political dynamics of a state for a very long time.  (J. Brummett and S. Rutherford, personal communication, November 13, 2014).

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