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Democrats Swept State Offices in 2006

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) arrives in Arkansas this week for a homecoming to keynote the state Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, party officials will have plenty to boast about: Big 2006 statewide wins bolster the rosy outlook for current Democratic officeholders and a promising crop of up-and-comers are heading down the pipeline. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The main thing we’re going to see in Arkansas politics for the next few years is … tremendous stability,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

Of the Natural State’s four House Members, three are Democrats in safe districts. Reps. Marion Berry, Mike Ross and Vic Snyder all trounced their Republican opponents last year by no less than 20 points, an especially wide margin considering the state voted twice for President Bush.

In Arkansas’ 100-Member state House, Democrats hold 75 seats. In the state Senate, Democrats hold 27 of 35 seats.

The lone Republican Congressman in the state is Rep. John Boozman. And Boozman fared nearly as well as his Democratic colleagues did last year, defeating Democrat Woodrow Anderson by roughly 50,000 votes, a solitary bright spot in an otherwise dismal cycle for the GOP.

“Even in the context of a poor year for Republicans, Arkansas Republicans performed poorly,” Parry said. “They have a history of poor organization, poor resources and a limited number of role models.”

In addition, Parry said Republicans have been hamstrung by term limits, changes to state campaign finance rules, and primary voters’ penchant for voting with their gut and picking unelectable nominees on the far-reaches of the political spectrum.

“Republicans have really been forced to re-evaluate the candidates that they are running and what the prospects actually are in this partly Southern, partly Midwestern, partly Western state,” Parry said. “[Arkansas Republicans] are not running candidates that can win general elections. People that are emerging are hard-core social conservatives that don’t connect with voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

While prospects for Republicans are bleak in the short-term, Parry said two state GOP lawmakers are making names for themselves using very different strategies.

State Sen. Shawn Womack, a former aide to then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), is pushing a ban on adoptions by gay, lesbian and unmarried heterosexual couples in the state, Parry said, carving out a niche that likely could, at least, get his name on the ballot in November 2008.

“His name will be circulating among primary voters because he spearheaded the legislation,” Parry said.

In the state House, Republican state Rep. Keven Anderson is said to be making headway working with Democrats on education and other important state issues.

“[He is] pretty tight with the Democratic majority,” Parry said. “[He is] studious, conservative but by the same token, realistic.”

Lori Klein, a political science professor at Harding University, agreed with Parry’s assessment that weak local Republicans affiliates have long-suffered from mismanagement.

“The local Republican parties, with the exception of some…strongholds, have just not been able to get it organized to mount a challenge,” Klein said.

Still, Klein said a few bright spots are emerging. Chuck Banks, a trial attorney and 2006 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, may consider running against Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) next year, while state Sen. Gilbert Baker, the outgoing state Republican Party chairman, also may run for higher office.

But the biggest Republican surprise yet, Klein maintained, may be a possible run for elective office by ousted Republican U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins III, who could capitalize on months of free press about being battered and bruised by his own party.

“He may rise from the ashes and surprise everyone,” Klein wrote in an e-mail.

While Republicans have the most to gain, most onlookers agree that Arkansas Democrats’ depth chart will remain stacked for the foreseeable future. At the top of Klein’s list sits state cabinet official Martha Shoffner, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and state Sen. Shane Broadway.

Halter has made noises about challenging Pryor in a Democratic primary, but most political observers in the state do not expect that to happen.

Also, political watchers don’t expect Democrat Mike Beebe to fade from public life once he leaves the governor’s mansion, though he was just elected in 2006 and probably will stick around Little Rock for a while.

“If he wants to do more … he could,” Klein said.

Among state legislators, Rep. Kathy Webb, House Majority Leader Steve Harrelson and Senate Majority Leader Tracy Steele are the more highly touted Democratic rising stars.

But when and if opportunities for higher offices present themselves for these politicians is another question altogether; with such a Democratic stronghold, open seats are are hard to come by. Pryor (D), who is just 44 years old, faces his first re-election contest next year, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), 46, currently is serving her second term.

“When you look at Sen. Mark Pryor and how young he is and that he’s coming from this powerful family … he’s a Senator for life,” Klein said.

But unlike federal office holders, state Representatives and Senators must abide by strict term-limit restrictions, forcing them perhaps to run for higher office before they’re ready. State House lawmakers may serve three two-year terms and state Senators generally may serve two four-year terms.

“We have some of the most stringent term limits in the country, so that’s not letting us build up depth,” Klein said. “The old saw about ‘knowing where the bathroom is … then they’re gone,’ that’s been a drain.”

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