An Arkansas Makeover

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Nov 08, 2010 5:24 PM

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.

But those shifts were top-down jobs, which don't have much staying power. A party has to be built from the bottom up, and last week's political makeover may turn out to have legs. For it's at the bottom of the ticket, in the Legislature, where change has to occur first before it works its way up.

The most impressive thing about this year's GOP sweep was, yes, the sweep of it. It brought to mind the story of the Kansas farmer and his family who emerged from their cyclone cellar after a storm to find the whole landscape altered. Everything had been swept away, but the farmer could only laugh.

"What are you laughin' at, daddy?" his boy asked. "Everything's gone!"

To which the old farmer replied, "Why, son, at the completeness of it."

No, the political landscape of Arkansas hasn't changed completely, but a bulldozer might as well have gone over it. The scene is no longer as familiar as some of the good ol' boys (and girls) in the Legislature, in Congress, and driving all those state-supplied cars.

How explain this turnover? The real kingmaker in this election, the mastermind behind the Republican resurgence, the political genius who deserves most of the credit, is ... Barack Obama.

For the election results can be read as a revolt against what he has come to stand for: over-reaching power. Whether in the form of ObamaCare, which makes people wonder how long they're going to be able to hold on to their private health insurance, or government takeovers like Government Motors, or cap -and-tax schemes or just hubris in general.

A similar arrogance on the state level only added to the GOP's appeal here in Arkansas. The state's Game and Fish Commission turned out to have more cars than employees, and the commissioners got caught trying to evade the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The GOP didn't really win this election in Arkansas; the Democrats lost it. And now, having declared victory in race after race, it'll be up to those Republican winners to earn it. If they don't, this sighting of a brave new, two-party system will prove just another false dawn. And I can confidently expect to be writing another column about a dramatic political shift a couple of years from now.