Paul Greenberg

What a difference a day makes. You go to sleep in a blue state and, next morning, wake up in a red one, or at least one that looks decidedly purplish by dawn's early light.

It didn't happen just in Arkansas -- as the midterm election returns poured in, the whole United States map looked like a sea of red between the coasts. But the change was particularly dramatic here in this last Democratic bastion south of the Mason-Dixon. Till now, Arkansas had stuck out of Dixie like a sore thumb, but by Wednesday morning, its political complexion had changed. Markedly.

A congressional delegation that had contained only one lone representative of the GOP had become two-thirds, yes, two-thirds Republican. A dull Republican congressman without an ounce of charisma named John Boozman from up in the hills, where you'll always find Republicans in the South, was now U.S. senator-elect.

He'd unseated Blanche Lincoln, the two-term incumbent, by 21 percentage points. She must have suspected what was about to hit her as the campaign took shape like a perfect storm, but surely not the size of the wallop. Even the congressman who beat her said he was surprised by the size of his victory.

And that was just at the top of the ticket. Anybody who grew up in an Arkansas where an (R) by a candidate's name was the kiss of electoral death had to rub his eyes next day to believe the returns:

Almost half of the state's constitutional offices now have changed political hands. Arkansas -- Arkansas! -- is now to have a Republican lieutenant governor, secretary of state and land commissioner. That's unheard of in these parts.

That (R) next to a candidate's name now stood out like a Good Politics Seal of Approval, and (D) had become the label that arouses suspicions. The world had turned upside down. Or at least Arkansas had started to quiver as this political quake hit, rocking the old establishment and upsetting the best-laid plans of the Democratic establishment.

The numbers were even more dramatic on the legislative level, where the state House went from overwhelmingly Democratic (72 to 28) to only decidedly so (55 to 45), and the Senate from yellow-dog (27 to 8) to a much paler shade of Democratic (20 to 15). As in Washington, cardboard boxes and packing crates will be in demand at Arkansas' state Capitol, too, 'cause there's a lot of packing to be done.

It's hard to believe but Arkansas may now have a semblance, maybe more than a semblance, of a two-party system. It could prove the first real one since Reconstruction, although there have been some sporadic starts at it from time to time since, as during the Win Rockefeller and Mike Huckabee eras.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.