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Hillary Clinton Returns To A Very Different Arkansas

Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, celebrate his victory in the Democratic runoff for Arkansas Governor on June 8, 1982 in Little Rock, Ark. Clinton defeated former Lt. Gov. Joe Purcell.
Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, celebrate his victory in the Democratic runoff for Arkansas Governor on June 8, 1982 in Little Rock, Ark. Clinton defeated former Lt. Gov. Joe Purcell.

Hillary Clinton may find you can't go home again when she returns to Arkansas Saturday night.

The 2016 hopeful returns to Razorback State for the first time since she announced her second bid for president, keynoting the Arkansas Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Little Rock.

But the state is hardly politically recognizable to the one that first launched the Clinton name to national political prominence and where she served as first lady for 12 years.

After serving as the state's governor for a decade, Bill Clinton carried the state by wide margins in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections.

But that Arkansas is gone. As recently as 2008, the state had a Democratic governor, both senators were Democrats and so were three of the four House members. Today, in a total sweep, Republicans control the governor's mansion, the state legislature and every Senate and congressional seat.

"Just compare 2008 to 2012, and you'll leave the room with a windswept look," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas and director of the Arkansas Poll. "It's pretty wild. I keep wanting to measure it, but I'm 99 percent sure that no state at any time in history has made a transformation this dramatic this swiftly."

Unfortunately for Clinton, this change means if she wins the nomination, a general election win is likely out of reach in the place she called home for nearly two decades.

When matched up against a generic Republican presidential candidate in Arkansas, Hillary Clinton would only take home 33 percent of the vote, compared to 50 percent for the Republican nominee, according to a June 2015 poll.

Those numbers are a far cry from her well-loved husband's performance.

"[Bill Clinton] sits well within a long line of Arkansas politicians who are affable, accessible, smart, and they have extraordinary charisma," Parry said.

Though Hillary Clinton certainly still enjoys residual goodwill in the state, she had to work harder to enjoy the support that seemed to come naturally for her husband, a magnetic Arkansas native.

"I think it took some time for her to adjust to Arkansas and for Arkansas to adjust to her, but I think eventually that did happen to a considerable extent," said Hoyt Purvis, founder of the Fulbright Institute for International Relations at the University of Arkansas, who first met Bill Clinton when Clinton worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a Georgetown undergraduate.

More important, though, than the personality difference between Clinton and her husband is the wider political shift that has swept the South in the last few decades.

The South used to be home to the "yellow-dog Democrats" — voters who claimed they would rather vote for a canine than a Republican. Arkansas and the states of the Deep South went nearly a century without electing a Republican governor, and only nine of the 115 Senators who served in those states during the 20th century were Republicans.

Near the turn of the century, a new breed of Southern Democrats had emerged — Blue Dog Democrats who embraced more centrist positions on fiscal and social issues, often bridging the gap between the two parties.

But in 2014, Georgia Rep. John Barrow's loss marked the last of the once-powerful bloc of white Democrats representing the Deep South in the House. Republicans now control every governor's mansion and Senate seat from Texas to the Atlantic Coast, with the exception of Senator Bill Nelson from Florida.

For some time, even as its neighbors shifted to the right, Arkansas still clung to its Democratic roots. It was still represented by Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Gov. Mike Beebe until this year.

The state's eventual shift to the right may have been a long time coming, but Parry attributes the swiftness of its switch to two main factors: the effect of President Obama's presidency and the massive amounts of money in elections all the way down to the county level.

"Arkansas is overwhelmingly white and rural, and Barack Obama is neither of those things," Parry said. "He's just foreign to folks here, and they just can't identify. And that's particularly in a state where people are used to being able to identify with candidates."

Additionally, the increasing amount of money in politics has meant that elections that were once largely protected from fierce partisanship are now much more influenced by national politics.

For decades, Arkansas Democrats touted themselves as different from national Democrats, speaking a language that Arkansans understood. But the influx of national money into state politics in the past few years nationalized races in a way they could no longer overcome.

"Parties have become much more important," Purvis said. "I think what we've seen is that candidates in some cases got elected almost exclusively on the basis of if they had an 'R' after their name. It has just been a tidal wave of Republican support that has really taken hold in the last four or five years."

Despite the legacy of Arkansas Democrats setting their own course, the increased money flowing into the state has finally brought the national polarization to a state that had, for the most part, avoided it.

"Post-Citizens United, there has been really strategic investment by Republican allies," Parry said. "It's just completely changed the game so that Arkansas can't be the holdout that it was, and charisma and contact with the candidates just matters much less than it did now that you can have all these high-dollar advertisements and glossy flyers arriving in people's mail in Piggott, Ark."

A prime example of this is Republican Sen. Tom Cotton's overwhelming defeat of Pryor. The Democrat and his family had been longtime fixtures of the Arkansas political scene, and the Pryor name had been on Arkansas ballots for nearly 50 years. Even as recently as 2012, only 20 percent of Arkansans disapproved of his record.

An Arkansas native, Cotton had lived outside Arkansas — attending law school, working for law firms, management consulting, and serving in the military — for the majority of the years that Pryor was in the Senate.

As a House freshman, Cotton upset many Arkansans when he voted against federal funding for the Arkansas Children's Hospital and voted twice against the farm bill. It also ruffled feathers when Cotton skipped events like the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, often considered the unofficial kickoff of the Arkansas general election season.

Still, Cotton thumped Pryor in 2014 by 17 points.

"He was such a packaged, glossy campaign by the Republicans and by the well-endowed Republican allies that they could run someone who doesn't do all the things that Arkansans have demanded for 100 years from their candidates," Parry said. "And it wasn't even close. I think he's a really emblematic case of how much the state has changed and how quickly that's happened."

And it doesn't seem like the trend of Arkansas going red will reverse itself any time soon.

In addition to the changing party landscape of Arkansas, it doesn't help that many of Hillary Clinton's policy positions conflict with Arkansas residents' viewpoints. For instance, while Clinton embraced the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision, only 21 percent of Arkansans believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, according to 2014 polls.

Clinton still has plenty of friends in her former dwellings of Fayetteville and Little Rock, Ark., but don't count on her making many stops to see them on her campaign trail. Arkansas and its neighbors don't look to turn back to their blue roots anytime soon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Leatherby
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