by Rod D. Martin
November 9, 1990
(The following is a column run in two parts in the Arkadelphia,
Arkansas Daily Siftings Herald following the
November 1990 elections)
Election ’90 has come and gone, and without any apparent surprises or upsets. Oh, there have been a few, one must admit: certainly the entrance of two former Democrats, one a sitting United States Congressman, into the fray for the Republican gubernatorial nomination counts; so does the extreme, shall we say, volatility of that race, which after the primary came to be known as “the race which would never die.” But on the whole, no surprises. Bill Clinton lead the Democrats to another clean sweep of all the state offices, even including the hotly contested office of Attorney General, which many on both sides had believed was Asa Hutchinson’s almost by right. By and large, it seems that 1990 was just one more year in the continuing thumping dominance of Arkansas politics by the candidates and officials of the party of Jackson.
But wait! Is that assessment really the case? On closer look, one clearly must have doubts; the Republican Party that enters 1991 is no longer even vaguely reminiscent of the Republican Party of 1988, in large part due to the chairmanship of Ken Coon. The difference is one of which Democrats and Republicans alike should take note.
The tendency of both the public at large and of the Republican Party of Arkansas historically has been to regard gubernatorial victories as the key indicator of party strength. Nothing could be more foolhardy, as both Winthrop Rockefeller and Frank White amply demonstrated. Holding the Governor’s office — or the Attorney General’s — proves precisely one thing: one individual Republican is momentarily a bit more popular than one individual Democrat. This really means nothing for the party, and can often hurt it. Under Frank White’s ill-fated regime, the Republican Party was bashed daily on a charge that would have haunted Sheffield Nelson or any other Republican unfortunate enough to have been elected November 6: the charge of ineffectuality. It’s easy to see why, too. One man — even a rich and popular Governor — cannot realistically hope to enact his program against a legislature, a bureaucracy, and seventy-five quorum courts that are absolutely owned by self-proclaimed “yellow-dawg” Democrats.
It is precisely in this area, though, that the Republican Revolution of 1990 took place, and this Revolution will have far-reaching effect over the next several years for Democrats and Republicans alike. For the first time since Winthrop Rockefeller paid the campaign bills of several hundred state and local GOP candidates in the mid-1960s, this year saw real Republican participation in local races throughout the state. This year, however, there were two key differences. The first difference was that these were mostly popular, well-known community leaders and businessmen, all of whom had to go out and raise their own funds and all of whom did. The second difference is that an enormous percentage of them won.
Many Democrats scoff at such gains; they point out that Republican victories were limited to less than twenty counties. They point out that most of the gains were relatively isolated. They point back to the defeat of the state-wide candidates. They also miss the point. The Republicans this year proved something long suspected both within the party and among political scientists of both parties around the state: that if the GOP ever fielded any candidates, a good lot of them would probably win.
And win they did. In Saline County, where in 1988 Doyle Webb was elected the first Republican Justice of the Peace in the county’s history, five new JPs joined him this year to form a majority in the Quorum Court. In White County, where a similar coup d’etat took place two years ago, the Searcy City Council succumbed to Republican dominance. Even in the hottest hot-bed of yellow-dawgism, Crittenden County, the Republican contender for County Treasurer won every single precinct, only to be stopped by the mysterious discovery of 250 previously uncounted absentee ballots for his opponent the next day (suit has been filed, though no settlement has been reached at the time of this writing). And so it went around the state, from Newton to Benton to Sebastian to Pulaski. Areas which had previously voted Republican on the Presidential and Congressional levels — and many which never had — for the first time sent real live Republican candidates to court-houses and city halls. Rest assured, the trend will continue.
Besides the obvious point that the normal route to political power is to “work your way up,” a route of which the GOP until now has been entirely deprived, and the implications these gains hold for the future, there is also the simple common sense that increasing local Republican strength will in relatively short order swell local Republican membership and thus local and statewide Republican treasuries. There is, though, another key point which must not be overlooked. That point is the attitude of the defeated GOP contenders, on all levels. You can, of course, count on Tommy Robinson and Sheffield Nelson to be back, the former possibly in a Congressional come-back against the First District’s Bill Alexander (who was nearly defeated in his own primary this year and faced a stiff challenge this fall from a relatively unknown and unfunded Republican); likewise Jim Keet, who ran a strong first-time race against veteran Congressman Ray Thornton, along with Asa Hutchinson, Bill Kerr, and a host of others, all now more experienced and well-known than before. They will be joined by others, very likely including Win Paul Rockefeller in a race to avenge his late father and remove Dale Bumpers from the Senate. More important still is the attitude of the defeated local candidates. Most to whom I have spoken (and that accounts for quite a lot) indicate that there is no way on Earth they won’t “fight again another day.” Moreover, a great many newcomers are talking about 1992 and 1994 races; they have seen for the first time that while, like all politicians, Republicans occasionally lose, they also occasionally win. That idea by itself is the biggest revolution in the history of Arkansas politics, and it is a genie which will never be put back in the bottle.
Another trend that should disturb Democrats is the rise of black Republicanism. For the first time since Rockefeller, blacks this year became active to a rather surprising extent, with a large number of black GOP candidates (including the much celebrated though not particularly successful Muskie Harris) on state and local levels, plus a rather large block of black voter support swinging to the very white Asa Hutchinson, who gained the support of the AME and CME bishops, as well as a considerable percentage of the NAACP leadership. The College Republicans are a case in point: in 1990, for the first time ever, a significant minority of the membership of almost half the state’s twenty College Republican clubs was black, including one club (Henderson State University) which was almost half black and boasted a deeply conservative black chairman, Herman Botley, who was impressively effective in recruiting other blacks into the Republican fold. There is no possible construction in which this bodes well for the Democratic Party, though the rise of a two-party black community could bring great gains both for blacks and for Republicans.
So maybe Election ’90 wasn’t so dull after all. The results will certainly change the Arkansas political landscape over the next few years, and have already taken the GOP from the position of a non-entity to that of a genuine second party. What is clear is simply this: First, Republicans must continue to field increasing numbers of good candidates, as they did this year, if they are to become a serious and equal rival to the Democrats within the decade. And second, the Democrats better assume they will.
Rod D. Martin has served for the past two years [1988-1990] as a member of the Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Arkansas and as Chairman of the Arkansas Federation of College Republicans. He also served this year as Co-Chairman and Editor of the state GOP Platform Committee. A native of Arkadelphia, he is currently a consultant to the British Conservative Party for youth affairs and a history student at Cambridge University.