Arkansas is now thoroughly Republican at the state and national levels, as evidenced by the party controlling all six congressional offices, all seven statewide offices and three-fourths of the Legislature, as well as winning the presidential election here every year since 1996.
At the county level? Not yet.
According to data crunched by the Republican Party of Arkansas, Democrats still control 839 the state’s 1,524 partisan offices at all levels, not including constables. That's about 55 percent. Republicans control 663, or 43.5 percent. The other 22 offices are held by officials who are neither Republican nor Democrat.
Republicans gained 43 seats this election, all at the county level. Those include five county judges (32 of the 75 will be Republicans) and seven sheriffs for a total of 29. After this election, 366 of the state’s 776 justices of the peace will be Republican, and the party will hold majorities in 26 of the 75 quorum courts.
The GOP couldn’t gain any congressional or state offices because it already had them, and it ended the election with the same number of legislators it started with.
Democrats dominated state politics from Reconstruction until a few years ago. Starting with the 2010 election, it’s been a red tsunami at the state and national levels.
There, the tsunami appears finally to have crested, though it’s not likely to recede soon. The GOP’s three-fourths legislative majority is probably going to hold for a while, more or less.
Certainly, there might be some changes at the edges. Two Republican legislative incumbents lost this year, as did two Democratic incumbents and the only independent, who until recently was a Democrat. But otherwise, there aren’t that many districts likely to flip.
Why haven’t the county offices changed parties as fast? No term limits.
Unlike state and national offices, your sheriff, county judge, county clerk, etc., serve as long as the voters keep electing them. Many of those offices have been held for years by the same people, and it’s still tough to beat an incumbent, or even decide to challenge one. Voters will replace the state legislator they’ve never heard of, but everyone’s fine with the county clerk who signed their marriage certificate, regardless of whether a “D” or an “R” follows her name. Often, she doesn’t even have an opponent.
Certainly, Democrats would rather win the governor’s race than county clerk races.
But frankly, the numbers aren’t as bad for Democrats as I thought they’d be. I predicted in a recent column that Republicans would hold a majority of the state’s partisan seats after this election or the next. They increased their numbers by 43 and are still 100 short of an outright majority, so it could take a little longer than I thought.
Still, it almost certainly will happen. The most powerful force in politics is inertia: things staying where they are, or continuing to move the direction they’re moving. When it’s on your side, it’s the gift that keeps on giving election after election. When it’s not, it can be an impossible wall to climb, as many Democratic candidates were reminded this year. Two other powerful forces are demographics and identity – identity being which team you’re on, and more importantly, which one you’re against.
Inertia, demographics and identity are all on one party’s side. When that’s the case, the other party can’t overcome them by arguing a policy position such as increasing access to pre-kindergarten classes. Minds are hard to change. Rather, that party often has to await societal changes, for people to move in and out, and for generations to be born and to die.
At the same time those things are happening, sometimes it also takes a catalyst to accelerate the change, like the election of President Obama in 2008, which turned Arkansas politics upside down for reasons that different people will explain differently.
When a party is facing challenges it can’t overcome, it often must set realistic goals, achieve what it can, and play the long game. Arkansas Republicans did it for 150 years, and now inertia, demographics and identity are working in their favor.
Will those three shift back? Probably eventually. When? Who knows? These things sometimes take a while.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.