LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Arkansas Republicans had been waiting generations for an election year like 2010. Long the minority party in a reliably Democratic state, the GOP was poised to make major gains at nearly every level.
Democrats began the year with a sinking suspicion that a major change was on the horizon.
"There has not been this much turmoil in Arkansas politics in a long time," U.S. Rep. Marion Berry said in January, days after fellow Democratic Congressman Vic Snyder announced his retirement and his own future was in question. "I would be afraid to predict anything. I think in the next couple months you could see all kinds of stuff coming down the pike."
What came down the pike was an historic shift in Arkansas’ politics. After the polls closed on Nov. 2, Republicans held a majority of the state’s congressional seats, one U.S. Senate seat, three constitutional offices and their largest number of seats in the majority-Democrat Legislature.
It was the political realignment that Republicans long hoped for Arkansas — pushing Bill Clinton’s home state deeper into the GOP column in congressional, statewide and legislative races.
"Arkansas has entered a new era in our state’s history," state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb told reporters the day after the election.
The gains even dampened the good news for Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who won overwhelmingly in his re-election bid despite an anti-incumbent and anti-Democratic Party tide. Beebe enters 2011 with an uncertain prospect for his agenda in the Legislature, especially on tax cut proposals.
The year began with plenty of warning signs for Democrats that 2010 was going to be a very bad year in Arkansas. Two-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln saw her approval numbers sink in the state as she geared up her re-election bid, especially as Republicans tied her to President Barack Obama and his health care overhaul.
Complicating matters were Snyder and Berry’s back-to-back announcements in January that they planned to retire at the end of their terms rather than seek re-election. Both said they weren’t running because of re-election fears, though Republicans had targeted both congressional seats as ripe for takeover.
Berry cited health reasons for retiring from his seat representing east Arkansas, while Snyder said he was bowing out for family reasons. Snyder acknowledged he faced a "robust" election season.
Republicans, however, kept their focus on Lincoln’s seat as their top prize on the ballot. After initially dismissing the idea of seeking the GOP nomination for the Senate seat, Republican Congressman John Boozman reversed course in February and said he would seek the seat. He became the eighth Republican seeking the nomination for the Senate post.
"I feel very strongly that it’s time for all of us to step up and do our part, and I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to step into the role as a senator from Arkansas," Boozman said.
Boozman’s entry was greeted by joy from Democrats, who hoped it would lead to a bruising fight for the GOP nomination.
The greater fight occurred on the Democrats’ side. Despite her vote for the health care overhaul, Lincoln was targeted by liberal activists such as MoveOn.Org and labor unions angry with her opposition to a public option as part of the health care law. She also was criticized for her positions on union-organizing legislation and efforts to address global warming.
"A lot of our people feel like, who is Blanche Lincoln? Is she a Democrat or a Republican?" Alan Hughes, the Arkansas AFL-CIO’s president, said in February.
Those on the left angry with Lincoln embraced Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in early 2010 as he mulled a run against the senator in the Democratic primary. After weeks of speculation, Halter announced he would challenge Lincoln in the primary, launching his bid on the same day she planned to file for re-election.
"Washington is broken. It’s working for the special interests, not Arkansas families," Halter said as he announced his campaign.
The scene at the state Capitol as Lincoln filed papers for re-election in March showed the precarious position she was in. After facing questions about Halter’s challenge from the left, Lincoln was greeted by a crowd of Republicans who chanted "bye-bye, Blanche."
Lincoln highlighted that position as her chief selling point, portraying herself as a moderate who wouldn’t cater to either extreme.
"Outside special interests on both extremes are plotting today to gain control of this Senate seat representing you, the people of Arkansas," Lincoln told supporters at her campaign headquarters before filing for re-election. "I know it, because I am the rope in the tug of war, folks."
It was a theme she relied on often during her bruising battle with Halter for the nomination. It devolved into a name-calling match between the two candidates, with Lincoln’s campaign branding the lieutenant governor "Dollar Bill Halter." Halter’s campaign had branded the senator "Bailout Blanche Lincoln." Both eventually stopped using the nicknames. The two spent more than $10 million combined on their campaigns, and the price tag rose with the millions that outside groups such as the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pumped into the state, primarily on television ads. Lincoln accused Halter of being the tool of labor unions backing his bid, while Halter portrayed her as part of the problem with Washington.
A surprisingly strong showing in the May primary by D.C. Morrison, a Little Rock businessman who ran on a promise to repeal the health care law, pushed Lincoln and Halter into the primary. Lincoln enlisted the support of Clinton, who remains popular in his home state, in the runoff battle.
The former president accused outside groups of trying to interfere with the state’s politics as he campaigned for Lincoln in Little Rock.
"This is about using you and manipulating your votes," Clinton said in a speech that was featured in one of Lincoln’s closing ads.
It was an argument that helped Lincoln defeat Halter in the runoff.
While Lincoln and Halter traded harsh jabs in their fight, the crowded GOP Senate contest didn’t create the fireworks many expected. Boozman faced criticism from Republican rivals for his vote for the $750 billion bank bailout, but defended his vote as necessary to prevent a further economic meltdown.
Boozman won the nomination outright in the May primary and stuck to the argument that Lincoln was too closely allied with the Obama administration.
Lincoln tried to highlight areas where she had battled the administration and accused Boozman of sacrificing the state’s interests by backing a GOP moratorium on earmarks. She pointed to the money and projects she’d delivered for Arkansas and her position chairing the Senate Agriculture Committee, the first Arkansan and first woman to hold the post.
In the end, the argument didn’t resonate with voters, who backed Boozman in the November election. Even in defeat, Lincoln argued that her centrist approach was something to be cherished.
"I still don’t believe the answers are in the extremes," Lincoln told supporters after conceding. "They have to be in the middle. They have to be where we work together."
Lincoln’s defeat marked a steady drumbeat of grim news for Democrats on election night. Republican Tim Griffin, a former interim U.S. attorney who served in the George W. Bush White House, defeated Democrat Joyce Elliott in the bid for Snyder’s 2nd District seat. Republicans also won Berry’s 1st District seat in east Arkansas, with GOP nominee Rick Crawford defeating Democrat Chad Causey.
Republican Steve Womack kept Boozman’s solidly Republican 3rd District seat in GOP control, defeating Democrat David Whitaker.
The results left Democrat Mike Ross, who had touted his conservative credentials and his opposition to the health care bill, as the only Democratic congressman from the state. Ross defeated Republican Beth Ann Rankin for the 4th District in south Arkansas.
Republicans picked up wins in the lieutenant governor, secretary of state and land commissioner’s races. Though they remain a minority, they picked up their greatest numbers in the state Legislature since Reconstruction.
The woes didn’t affect Beebe, who won every county in his re-election bid as he fended off a challenge from Little Rock restaurant owner and former legislator Jim Keet.
Beebe successfully distanced himself from national Democrats in his re-election bid, despite efforts by Keet to portray the governor as "Obama’s silent partner" on issues such as immigration and health care.
Keet and Republicans criticized Beebe and other state officials over the personal use of government vehicles. Questions raised about the state cars in a series of stories by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette prompted Beebe to sign an executive order specifying which state employees can have taxpayer-funded cars to use for commuting purposes. As governor, Beebe is not assigned a car but is transported in a state-owned sport-utility vehicle by state police.
Questions about the cars prompted two lawsuits pending in Pulaski County Court.
Beebe and legislative leaders also tackled the state’s first fiscal session under a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to meet and budget annually. In the session, which wrapped up in less than three weeks in February, lawmakers approved a $4.5 billion spending plan that restored most of the budget cuts that had been made over the past year.
Beebe ended the year preparing for a much different legislative environment than he’s seen before. Republicans control a majority of the seats on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, and the same panel is split along party lines in the Senate. Both could complicate his proposal to cut another half-cent off the state’s grocery tax, with Republicans calling for additional tax cuts in the 2011 session.
Beebe’s predecessor, meanwhile, remained a national presence but shed his Arkansas residency. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet, registered to vote in February in Florida, where he rents a beach house. Huckabee, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, remained in the public eye with a Fox News Channel Show and continued mulling another run for the White House in 2012.