LITTLE ROCK — Gains by Democrats in other states this year — including victories in solidly red Oklahoma next door — are offering hope to Arkansas Democrats that there may be a way to rebound following Republican routs in recent years. Their party, however, still faces a host of challenges as it gears up for an election where Republicans have advantages up and down the ballot.
Democrats this month won governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, while the party won control of the state Senate in Washington state. And Democrats flipped their fourth statehouse seat this year in Oklahoma, winning a state Senate seat in a special election last week. The wins in other states are helping Arkansas Democrats as they try to recruit candidates in a longshot effort to recover in a state where Republicans have firm control of statewide and legislative offices.
“We’ve had the hope and we’ve been working since before those elections to get candidates in those spots because we feel like there are going to be some opportunities,” state Rep. Michael John Gray, who chairs the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said last week. “What those elections are doing for us is helping validate what we’ve already been saying to people, so it’s helping change the mood out there.”
A year away from the election, Democrats don’t have announced candidates for some of the state’s top offices such as governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general. But newcomers are mounting bids for congressional and state legislative seats across the state.
“I think the state, arguably the nation, is hungry for new faces with ideas versus just the same old political rhetoric of blaming it on the other guy,” Gray said. “We’re real encouraged with really some candidates with some real depth and genuine people who just want to make Arkansas better.”
Translating that enthusiasm into bigger wins is easier said than done, especially in a state that President Donald Trump won easily and where his approval numbers haven’t taken the same hit as elsewhere. The University of Arkansas’ annual Arkansas Poll released this month showed the president with a 47 percent approval rating. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
A lesson from Oklahoma may be to focus on state-level rather than national politics. Democrats’ gains there came after years of state budget shortfalls and recent scandals that led to the resignation of four GOP incumbents. State-level issues Democrats have been touting here include preserving the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion and concerns about stalled efforts to increase funding for Arkansas highways.
Polling shows the challenge Democrats may face in trying to convince voters a change in control at the Capitol is needed. Sixty-four percent of respondents in the Arkansas Poll said they felt that the state was generally headed in the right direction, and 62 percent said they approved of the job Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is doing in office.
But UA’s poll also showed an increase in the percentage of respondents who identify themselves as independents saying they’re closer to Democrats — up from 18 percent last year to 26 percent this year. Thirty-seven percent of independents in the poll said they’re closer to Republicans, unchanged from last year. Those numbers offer another small sliver of hope for Democrats, and the next several months will show whether it also means an opening for the Democratic Party.