UPDATE: Lots of comments below with good discussion, and check out Blake Rutherford’s response over at Blake’s Think Tank, where the back and forth continues.
Arkansas political history is fascinating and instructive. It is also readily available if you wish to learn on your own. Arkansas politicos like to talk about the old times and how things once were. If you can get past the fact that 90 percent of the people with longevity in Arkansas politics are Democrats, then you can tap into a treasure trove of political experience.
Unfortunately, Arkansas Republicans who have had some political success disappear soon after they leave office. If they don’t get a TV show, they just disappear from the scene and are rarely heard from again. One would be hard pressed to visit with former Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt or, for that matter, former Rep. Stephen Bright. But you can’t throw a rock in downtown Little Rock without hitting two former Democratic legislators in the head.
Fortunately, these Democrats are eager to relate stories of their glory days with intellectually curious young Republicans. Probably the first story these generous souls will share is how some influential Democrat helped them along in their career. They will tell you about how they were mentored and how they, in turn, mentored someone else. They’ll explain how Paul planted and Apollos watered, and soon the political seeds planted grew into actual office holding flowers.
Then you’ll probably hear two second-hand stories if you visit long enough. One is the story of Bill Clinton saying he didn’t need a party to win; all he needed was one supporter in each county. Then they’ll relate how Clinton staged his 1982 comeback based on that theory.
The other story is how a group of young hopefuls drank a bottle of wine one evening and plotted their futures, taking an oath to assist one another achieve their goals. The story will end that 20 years later, they had all reached the offices/positions/jobs they had plotted for and how many of today’s judges, reporters, bankers, congressmen, etc. were a part of this junta .
These stories illuminate what we lack as Republicans in Arkansas. On some level, we know these lessons, but don’t like to admit them.
First, Arkansas Democrats invest in their party’s future. Those with experience help the young politicos, offering advice, guidance and monetary investments. This is the epitome of the Good Ole Boy system. The Democratic Party is the ultimate networking tool, landing good jobs to promising party activists in both the public and private sector.
Also, they do business together and enrich each other. There is brand loyalty and many Democrats in business will avoid doing business with Republican owned establishments. That is especially true on the local level. Many of the business owners and more well to do residents of small towns are Democrats and those seeking favor from them are, in turn, Democrats. Those locals with a little money can make or break local races. Thus the local elected officials are friends with and often beholden to these elites.
That means the strength of the Democratic Party in Arkansas is the county-level power holders. If you want anything done in the counties, you must go through a Democrat to get it done. So when Clinton ran for governor in 1982, he found a few choice power brokers in each county and they delivered their county for him. He invested political capital in the local power structure and they delivered for him.
Lastly, Arkansas Democrats look and plan for the big picture. It isn’t just about winning one election. It is about establishing your base, empowering them, and then relying on them to take you to where you want to go. It is also about unity, a word that is foreign to Arkansas Republicans.
Mike Huckabee won because he emulated Bill Clinton; he didn’t need a party, having made contacts all across the state as a pastor. These contacts were often influential members of their communities. He relied on them to get people to show up and he wowed them with his personality. He created his own structure out of the countless contacts he had.
Unless Arkansas Republicans stop fighting for positions at the top of the ticket and start focusing on lower offices and county offices, they’ll stay in the minority. Primaries are good, but when 20 people fight for one office, that means there are 19 candidates that aren’t running for other offices that may be winnable. Occasionally a Republican with Huckabee’s connections and charisma may come along and win statewide office, but those wins are will be few and far between.
Republicans like to think they are fighting to change the culture, but they fail to understand that until they change their local culture, they’ll never have an impact on our culture as a whole.