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Obama Dislike Fuels GOP Takeover in Arkansas

4 min read

LITTLE ROCK – President Barack Obama’s unpopularity and the involvement of outside conservative groups helped Republicans in Arkansas achieve a prize that had eluded them for 138 years when they swept the state’s U.S. House seats and wrested control of the state’s Senate and House in Tuesday’s election.

But an agonizingly close fight for control of the state House opened up the possibility of a sharply divided state Legislature where both parties will have to work together after dozens of bitter and caustic races across Arkansas.

With Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney winning the state’s six electoral votes but losing his bid for the White House, attention in Arkansas focused on the GOP’s bid to upend a political tradition that dated back to when the state emerged from the Civil War.

“I think it’s a an exciting new day for Arkansas after 138 years of primarily one-party rule,” said freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, who defeated Democratic challenger Herb Rule in the race for Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District.

Griffin and the state’s two other Republican incumbent congressmen won re-election, while the GOP’s Tom Cotton won a U.S. House seat in southern Arkansas. Cotton’s win in the 4th District, for a seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Mike Ross, gave Republicans a sweep of the state’s U.S. House seats.

Republicans won 21 of 35 seats in the state Senate, with one seat undecided. In the House, Republicans held a 50-48-1 edge over Democrats and the Green Party with results from one contest still to be counted. There was no Democrat in the contest, meaning that a GOP victory in a race against an independent would give Republicans control of the House for the first time since 1874.

Romney’s win in Arkansas was a foregone conclusion in a state where Obama remains deeply unpopular. Obama lost the state in 2008 and fared poorly in the Democratic primary this year. The state’s voters also approved a half-cent sales tax for highway improvements, but rejected a proposal to make Arkansas the first southern state to legalize medical marijuana.

Voters also rejected a proposal that would have allowed cities to create development districts backed by expected sales tax revenue.

The ballot measures and the presidential race were overshadowed by Republicans’ bid for a sweep at the legislative and congressional level in Arkansas. The GOP built on momentum two years ago when it flipped a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House seats by tying Democratic candidates for the state Legislature to Obama and his federal health care law. Though the president hasn’t visited the state since 2006, his face popped up on mailers and in ads by Republican candidates and affiliated groups. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee even joked that the Democratic president should be rewarded for his recruitment efforts for state Republicans.

“This state has been trending Republican for the last two or three election cycles,” said Clint Reed, a political strategist and former executive director of the state GOP. “Barack Obama just happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Aside from dislike of Obama, Republicans were aided by the help of outside conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity that spent big on the fight for the Legislature. AFP has spent more than $900,000 in the state over the past two years and sent 1.1 million mailers in 32 House and Senate districts around the state.

Democrats were helped to a lesser extent by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which sent mailers and ran radio ads around the state.

The GOP takeover came in spite of polls showing that Arkansas voters overwhelmingly backed Beebe’s performance and believed the state was headed in the right direction. Beebe, who was re-elected in 2010, was not on Tuesday’s ballot but had been the chief salesman for his party’s bid to a keep a legislative majority.

Beebe, a veteran legislator who said he had campaigned more this year for other candidates than ever before in his political career, had held off from predicting whether Democrats would maintain control. Instead, he warned that the Legislature would likely remain closely divided along party lines.

“They’re going to have to figure out how to work together,” Beebe told reporters in the days leading up the election.

That’ll be especially true on the big issues. Expanding Medicaid and other budget matters require a three-fourths vote in both chambers, a so-called supermajority that neither party can claim after this election.

A Republican takeover of the Senate – where Beebe served for 20 years – threatened to alter the governor’s agenda as he heads into his final regular legislative session next year. That agenda includes his support for expanding Medicaid’s eligibility under the federal health care overhaul, a law that Republicans have vowed to stop at the state level. Beebe and Republicans are also poised to clash over tax policy, with the governor hoping to continue cutting the state’s grocery tax and GOP leaders calling for cuts to the state income tax instead.

The election gave Republicans leverage to push for these and other policies that they felt had been pushed aside by Beebe and other top Democrats.

“(Voters) want a check and balance on the Democrat Party,” State GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said.

Democrats were left to figure out how to halt a surge that began two years ago and now threatens to overwhelm them in 2014. It’s a task that observers say was made harder by the re-election of an incumbent president who’s made an easy foil for the GOP.

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

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