SPECIAL REPORT: Arkansas’ switch from blue to red attributed to national identity politics

Special Report

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — Those living in Arkansas know what many say about the state’s politics: they’re about as red as they can get. The state’s political structure shifted from total Democratic control in the early 2010s and hasn’t looked back because of national identifiers, said two University of Arkansas professors.

Janine Parry is a political science professor at the UofA, and she conducts the annual “Arkansas Poll”.

“Once a year, we do a sample of about 800 people, adult Arkansans,” Parry said. “We ask them about politics and policy. We’ve been doing that since 1999.”

Parry said a shift toward national identity politics has played a role in the state’s shift further right, which the most recent Arkansas Poll confirms to be the case.

“It appears that in many ways, Arkansans have kind of finally gotten the message of what the party looks like nationally, and so our state politics have kind of shifted to match up,” Parry said.”

More people in Arkansas are identifying as Conservative instead of Moderate, according to the poll.

“It really doesn’t seem to be much about the issues as it is about brand,” Parry said.

Andrew Dowdle is also a political science professor at the UofA, and he teaches about the history of campaigns and elections. Democrats dominated Arkansas until the 2010s, he said, and the trajectory of former Sen. Mark Pryor’s (D) political career is a good example of shifting tendencies.

“When [Pryor] runs for reelection in 2008, he does not have a Republican opponent because the thought was any Republican who ended up running against Pryor would end up losing by such a large margin that it would be a waste of time and effort,” Dowdle said.

Just six years later, an unexpected turn of events ousted Pryor, who served for more than a decade.

“You get Tom Cotton, who was still in his first term as a member of the House of Representative,” Pryor said. “He ends up beating Pryor by a significant margin.”

Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln served for more than a decade, too, before then-Rep. John Boozman ousted her in 2010.

But Parry said those outcomes aren’t because voters’ values changed. Instead. national influence started seeping into the state.

“We’ve gotten clear signals from the new campaign finance regime and a lot of funding, television ads that say, ‘Hey, Arkansas, you’re actually Republicans,'” Parry said. “It appears finally our population said, ‘Oh, I guess we are.'”

State Sen. Bob Ballinger (R) said the electorate in Arkansas that voted Democrat just a short time ago now votes for him.

“What you have is those people who’ve always been Conservative are now recognizing and aligning with the party that is Conservative,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger’s party now controls a Supermajority in the state legislature, and it has a lot to do with nationalization.

“Big issues, things people are focused on nationally, the things that you check off as to what it means to be Democrat or Republican, those things have changed,” Ballinger said. “But 80% of what we do in the legislature is not those things. Those things are pretty much the way that they always have been.”

Parry’s poll shows Arkansans think the most important issue they face is the economy, and the state’s leanings haven’t notably changed over time.

“When you look at our preferences on guns, our preferences on abortion, our interest in really more bread-and-butter issues like the economy and education, our preferences on those things haven’t changed a great deal in the 20 years that I’ve been polling,” Parry said.

State Sen. Greg Leding (D) has seen his party’s influence in the state shrink, but he’s broken the mold, carving out a successful political career. This is easier to do in Northwest Arkansas, a place known for being, “a blue island in a red lake,” Dowdle said.

“A lot of it, though, it’s my first year in the Senate, but I had eight years in the House,” Leding said. “It was just being able to build up institutional knowledge and relationships with lawmakers during that period of time.”

The key to winning in Arkansas as a Democrat comes down to working on common ground, Leding said, and he’s optimistic about the future.

“I came in, I did have one term in the majority, but Democrats just kept losing,” Leding said. “But 2018, that stopped. So, we’ll see what happens in 2020.”

Parry said the numbers don’t favor Arkansas Democrats in the near future.

“For the foreseeable future, we’ll probably see a Supermajority Republican situation in which Democrats scramble to produce candidates much as we saw for 100 years with Democrats prior to that,” Parry said.

Parry said there’s no indication there’ll be a shift back to Democratic power.

“For a long time, we sort of lived in two different worlds: one for federal elections and one for state elections,” Parry said. “Now, they align almost perfectly”

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