Arkansas' Independent Streak On the Line (AP Analysis)

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012 8:20 am  

LITTLE ROCK — Is Arkansas saying goodbye to its split personality at the polls, or merely taking a break from it?

Tuesdays' election won't just be a test of whether Republicans can win control of the state Legislature and sweep Arkansas' four congressional seats for the first time since Reconstruction. It could also signal the end of the state's long-heralded independent streak.

Politicians from both sides have for decades boasted of the state's at-times-maddeningly ability to confound outside observers with its ticket splitting.

This is the same state that in 1968 simultaneously elected Republican Winthrop Rockefeller governor and Democrat J. William Fulbright senator and gave its electoral votes to American Independent nominee George Wallace. It's a state that supported the strictest term limits for its Legislature, but also backed an amendment that effectively turned lawmaking into a full-time job by creating annual sessions.

More recently, it's a state that elected its second Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction while re-electing a popular Democratic governor. It's a tradition resulting from Arkansas' history as a smaller, mostly rural state where voters still call elected officials by their first names.

"People expect to and can connect with individuals personally, so the party label and generic messaging is less important than a one-to-one connection," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. "That might be why for so long they were still electing Democratic legislators and members of the quorum court while they were comfortable electing a Republican president."

Democrats have been relying on voters to make that distinction, with campaign materials and ads trying to draw the line between the state party and its national figures. It's a message that's been drowned this election by Republicans and conservative groups who have tied races that traditionally hinged on local issues to the unpopularity of President Barack Obama and his federal health care overhaul.

There are still chances for a head-scratcher or two from this election. Democrats publicly say they believe the party will still maintain control of the House and Senate, while privately some members say there's a chance the party could keep one chamber.

Backers of two ballot measures are also counting on a split, with proponents of medical marijuana legalization insisting that support for their proposed initiated act can cross party lines. The campaign for a sales tax to pay for highway improvements has managed to pick up the backing of some high-profile Republicans, indicating that the GOP's rise may not mean a complete rejection of tax hikes.

But the bigger sign of whether the state's ticket splitting is on the way out the door could take two or more years to judge, experts say.

They point to 2014, when the state's seven constitutional offices and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor's seat is on the line. Pryor has already launched his re-election bid and still has widespread name recognition, while Democratic Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is enjoying a healthy head start on fundraising and organization in his bid for governor.

Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College, said that year's election could show whether Republican growth can last on its own without dislike of Obama driving conservative voters to the polls.

"I think the question is when you take Obama out of the picture, how permanent is this shift among these white rural voters?" said Barth, a Democrat who ran for the state Senate two years ago.

It's a question that politicians and observers say they're going to keep watching, but warn not to pre-emptively declare the state's independent streak dead yet. For Parry, that call may take multiple election cycles.

"It's been with us so long, I wouldn't expect it to disappear overnight," she said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.) 

 

 

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