Posted 10/28/2012 12:09 pm
Updated 7 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — At first blush, this should be the type of environment where Democrats in Arkansas rejoice. Voters overwhelmingly approve of the way Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is doing his job, most say the state is headed in the right direction and more than half approve of a two-term Democratic senator the GOP is eager to unseat in two years.
Democrats instead are facing an increasingly uphill battle to keep the state's House and Senate in their party's hands, a scenario that's all the more puzzling to party leaders and insiders as they inch closer to the Nov. 6 election.
"Arkansas has been known for decades for having kind of a personality disorder when it comes to politics," said Janine Parry, a University of Arkansas political science professor and director of the school's annual Arkansas Poll. "I think that's a large part of what we see happening here."
The latest figures released by Parry's poll last week highlighted the dilemma state Democrats face as they try to prevent Republicans from winning legislative control for the first time since Reconstruction.
Beebe, a Democrat who's been campaigning for legislative candidates around the state, still enjoys high popularity. Seventy-two percent of very likely voters surveyed said they approved of the job he's been doing, while 74 percent said they believe the state is headed in the right direction. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Even Sen. Mark Pryor, who is already preparing for his 2014 bid and viewed as a top target by Republicans, enjoys a healthy approval rating of 53 percent among very likely voters.
Those aren't the numbers that Democrats should be focused on, however. Parry notes that for the third year in a row, nearly half of the respondents in the poll who identified themselves as independents said they lean closer to the Republican Party. In a state where voters often pride themselves on their independence, it's a worrisome sign for the Democratic Party.
"We have three years in which we see those independents swinging to the right," she said. "To me, that suggests there is indeed something bigger afoot here."
Republicans argue the numbers show the state is on the verge of a tipping point in next week's election that would end Arkansas' reign as the only southern state with a Democrat-controlled statehouse and governor's mansion.
"Arkansas is realigning with the Republican Party because Arkansans are conservatives," State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said.
Beebe called the party's challenge in this year's election ironic, given his approval numbers and the high number of Arkansans who see the state heading in the right direction. He said it shows just how much the party is battling with anger at Washington being redirected closer to home.
"Apparently most people like what we're doing and most people like the direction, so you try to counteract their anger at Washington and their anger at the administration in Washington and their anger at the party in Washington," Beebe said. "You try to counteract it by pointing out precisely what the poll reflects. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."
Will Bond, the state Democratic Party chairman, said the party's challenge has been to ask voters two key questions when looking at the election: "One, who thinks Governor Beebe has done a great job? The next question is who thinks he's doing that alone?"
Based on his approval ratings, Beebe is clearly winning on that first question and that's why Democrats have made him the centerpiece of their campaign to keep the Legislature. But the second question may be more of a struggle for Democrats as they try to translate Beebe's popularity and his legislative successes into wins for their candidates.
"That's our job, to remind them of that second question and remind them of that record by Democrats," Bond said.
That job is made tougher with an unpopular Democratic president who Republicans are eagerly tying to Democratic legislative candidates, and conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity that have blanketed the state with mailers and advertisements.
Beebe's still an active force on the campaign trail, but his job now may also be preparing for the possibility of voters giving another party control of one or both chambers of the Legislature while also approving of his own performance. Beebe is stopping short of predicting who will control the Legislature after next week's election.
"Either way, it's going to be close," Beebe said. "Either way, they're going to have to work together. Either way, they're going to have to work together and figure out how to listen to one another's arguments or else they're going to turn into D.C., and I don't think they want that."
(Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo.)
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)