FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) - Less than ten years ago, the Democratic party held control of the Arkansas legislature, the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats. Now it's a party desperately trying to stay relevant. So what flipped the Natural State?
"It's been the central question in Arkansas politics for 3 election cycles," said Dr. Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
Parry has spent nearly two decades using data to track the rise of the Republican party in Arkansas.
"White voters started to move really in droves over to the Republican party in a way that we hadn't seen for a hundred years, but Arkansas didn't do that," Parry explained.
"Arkansas, among its neighboring states, among Southern states was really the last to go Republican," said Hoyt Purvis, a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas.
Purvis has been studying Arkansas politics for more than 30 years. He says Arkansans began voting for Republicans on the presidential level as early as the 1960s, but the popularity of Democrats like Bill Clinton and David Pryor helped the Democrats hold onto power in the state.
"They were generally popular by the people not because of ideological reasons but because they liked them, they respected them," Purvis explained.
"The flip really happened starting around 2010," Parry said.
In 2010, Republicans gained seven seats in the State Senate and 17 in the State House. By 2012, they took control of both chambers and by 2014, they secured all seven constitutional offices.
So how was the Republican party able to flip the state in just three elections?
"A lot of people have asked that question," Parry said. "I tend to think that it boils down to three things."
Parry believes the first blow to the Democrat's grip on power was a self-inflicted wound. In 2008, the Democrat-controlled state legislature decided to hold a "dual primary," with the presidential primary election happening in February while the local primary elections took place in May.
This meant voters could vote Republican in the presidential primary and Democrat in the local primaries.
"They now had a perfect, targeted voter list of several hundred thousand voters who were probably moving back and forth in the general election but now we could specifically target them as likely Republican voters," Parry said.
"We saw an opportunity…," said Chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas Doyle Webb. Webb has worked in Arkansas politics since the 1970s.
"It was very intentional in targeting those races, recruiting good candidates, developing the funding and the volunteer base to help elect those individuals," Webb explained.
Parry says two more punches to the gut would eventually seal the Democratic party's fate in Arkansas.
First, the extreme unpopularity of former President Barack Obama.
"He has really dismal approval ratings here for really the entirety of his presidency," Parry explained.
The second was an explosion of out-of-state donations that allowed Republicans to run TV ads linking Arkansas Democrats to more liberal policies.
"You would hear people say, 'I didn't leave the Democrat party, the Democrat party left me,'" Webb said.
The Chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas State Representative Michael John Gray says the party failed to get its message across. While he says his party is energized going into the 2018 midterms, Webb says he's confident Arkansas is a red state now.
"I don't think the transition came easy...and I don't think it will reverse itself," Webb said.
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