The headline of a NBC preview of the U.S. Senate race in Arkansas by Kasie Hunt and Ben Mayer asks the right question: “Can a Democrat Still Be Elected in Arkansas?” The piece goes on to spend a lot of time talking about the individual pros and cons of incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor and GOP challenger Rep. Tom Cotton. And in a very close race, such non-party factors could well be the difference. Pryor is the scion of a very successful Arkansas political family, and is about as Blue Doggy as Democrats can get these days. Cotton combines a made-for-Hollywood personal bio (he’s sort of a white G.I. Joe version of Bobby Jindal) with a hard-right record in Congress; he’s the darling of both Tea Folk and neocons.
But driving the whole contest is the rapid realignment of white Arkansas voters (especially in rural and small-town areas) from blue to red. That’s happened most dramatically since Barack Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination over adopted-daughter Hillary Clinton in 2008. So it’s natural to hear talk that it’s all about the Clintons or all about the president’s race. But you can make a pretty good case that Arkansas is simply the last southern state to fall to a more general realignment in favor of the GOP–a realignment that began decades ago in South Carolina and Mississippi, gradually spreading throughout the region. To be sure, race has played a major role in that realignment, but it would be happening even if Obama had lost the nomination in 2008.
What makes the defection of “traditionally Democratic” white voters in Arkansas so politically devastating is that the state has a relatively small African-American population (15%, as of the 2010 census, the lowest of any former Confederate state other than Texas, but without Texas’ large Hispanic population), and hasn’t experienced the kind of large influx of transplants and “knowledge workers” that has kept North Carolina purple and (arguably) made Virginia blue. Add in a traditionally Republican mountain region and suburban voters, and you’ve got a GOP coalition that is understandably growing rapidly. In many respects, Arkansas resembles its eastern neighbor Tennessee, where conservative Republicans now have a stranglehold on statewide offices. But additionally, like its southern and western neighbors Louisiana and Texas, Arkansas is an energy-producing state, with all the implications that has for attitudes towards the bicoastal liberal agenda.
Top it all off with the increasingly clear GOP advantage in midterm elections everywhere, and the real wonder is that not only Pryor, but his Blue Doggy ticket-mate in the gubernatorial contest, former Rep. Mike Ross, are hanging in there in the polls. If they both wind up losing, facile efforts to blame it all on Obama may miss the larger point that Democrats in this state have been battling adverse trends for a very long time, with considerable success.