LITTLE ROCK — Five years ago, then-Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Dennis Milligan all but threw in the towel on the 2008 election season.
With no challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, and with Democrats assured of a state House majority even before the May primary, Milligan said the party was returning to the fundamentals — he used the sports analogy "blocking and tackling" — and working to create a "farm team" of candidates at the county level.
"We have good candidates all over the state," Milligan said. "In two years, we’ll really see a difference."
In 2010, Republicans more than doubled their number of officeholders at the county level — Milligan was elected Saline County circuit clerk — and won more seats in the state House and Senate than they had held in generations.
This year, with a stable of new Republican recruits, as Milligan called them, Republicans expect to add to the number of local offices they hold, at least win control of the House and make a strong bid for a Senate majority.
"If you don’t think there isn’t a smile on my face from seeing the development of a farm team, of getting young whipper snappers that are standing up ... getting those individuals involved to kind of mix in with the old veterans," Milligan said. "I think we really have planted good seeds for good candidates."
Democrats now hold 53 of the 100 House seats and 20 of the 35 Senate seats. One House seat is vacant because of the recent resignation of Democrat Hudson Hallum of Marion after pleading guilty to a voter fraud charge in a 2011 special election.
Milligan and Doyle Webb, the current state GOP chairman, said last week that the rise of Republicans at the county level has fueled the GOP wave the state has experienced.
Webb said since 2009, the Republican National Committee has provided the state GOP with about $1.5 million to help with party building and grooming new candidates.
"We developed a plan and took it to the RNC and they helped to fund our plan at the grassroots," said Webb, who has been chairman party in January 2009.
Webb said the red tide at the county level has swept across the state and that many counties where the elected officials were traditionally Democrats — Baxter, Cross, Faulkner, Lonoke, Garland, Polk, Pope, Saline and Garland counties among them — now have a significant Republican flavor and in some instances a majority.
In southeastern Arkansas, Drew County in 2010 elected its first two Republican county officials since Reconstruction — land surveyor and constable. The GOP expects to gain at least two quorum court seats their this fall. The Republican surveyor and constable have no opposition in November, and neither does the Republican candidate for county treasurer. There are also Republican candidates in contested races for county judge and collector.
Also, Drew County has its first ever Republican candidate for state Senate.
"It’s kind of a whirlwind," said Diana Harton of Monticello, chairman of the Drew County Republican Party. "I never in a million years imagined we would have this kind of turnout for candidates coming out to run."
Harton said the party disbanded about 15 years ago in the county and she reorganized it in 2009.
She said the number of Republicans voting in the county rose from about 250 four years ago to almost 600 in the May primary, and the county’s GOP committee has about 250 members.
Jay Barth, author of the book Arkansas Politics and Government, agreed that the Republican Party’s development of a political "farm team" at the county level has been important, but he also said the unpopularity of President Obama was just as important, if not more.
"I think the two things are not mutually exclusive," said Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College and a Democrat who was a state delegate to the party’s national convention in August. "Undeniably, the Republicans have had some consciously designed efforts top begin to take over at the justice of the peace level, the county official level and create what they’ve been missing, which was a farm team of candidates to run for higher office," Barth said.
However, he said Obama’s campaign for president in 2008 and his presidency in 2010 also led a lot of new Republican candidates to seek state and federal offices, Barth said.
Mark Darr, a businessman with no political experience, was elected lieutenant governor, and John Thurston, who worked in ministry operations at a Little Rock church, was elected state land commissioner.
Also, Tim Griffin, a former federal prosecutor who once worked in President George W. Bush’s administration, was elected congressman in the 2nd District and the 1st District in eastern Arkansas elected a Republican, radio station owner Rick Crawford, to Congress for the first time since the end of the Civil War.
Republican gains in the state House and Senate were fueled by the conservative tea party, which opposed Obama’s presidential bid, according to Barth.
"Yes, there were some folks who did work their way up, I’m not saying they didn’t create a farm team down below, but I think in 2010 there were some special circumstances that really did create some wins for Republicans," Barth said.
Democrats, Barth said, need to learn from the Republican Party and start developing and grooming quality candidates at the local level. Also, it’s important that the party retains the governor’s office in 2014, he said.
"That does create a crop of folks, either working on staff or appointments to offices … who become possible candidates for the future," Barth said. "That’s one of the last places you’ve got a party development operation."
Milligan said he will not be satisfied until Republicans are the majority in the Legislature, hold each of the state’s four congressional seats and all the constitutional offices.
"We have made great gains, but we haven’t sealed the deal," he said. "We’ve got to see how this election cycle goes, how it plays out and if in fact we can honestly say that this state has gone red."
Milligan has said he will run for state treasurer in 2014.