Why an obscure Arkansas state senate race has national implications

William J. Upton State Affairs Manager, ATR
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A state senate race in Arkansas may have just blown the doors open and revealed a political wave that could wipe out congressional Democrats next fall. John Cooper, the newly elected Republican senator from the 21st state senate district, won the January 14th special election in a landslide – taking 57-percent of the vote.

The odd thing is, the 21st district is a heavily Democratic-aligned district. In 2010 it went 68 percent for Democrat Governor Mike Beebe. In fact, the Jonesboro-based senate seat hasn’t been held by a Republican in nearly 150 years. Cooper’s victory begs the question, what happened, and what does it all mean?

John Cooper, a retired AT&T employee, wouldn’t strike most seasoned political observers as the kind of guy you’d want to run for office in what was thought of as a Democrat district. His campaign focused on his opposition to tax hikes – he was a signer of ATR’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge – and his opposition to Obamacare – specifically the bipartisan, Republican leadership-backed Arkansas Private Option (Medicaid expansion). In short, Cooper ran as the conservative’s conservative.

Cooper’s opponent was Sam Rockwell. Rockwell was a local small-business owner and attempted to paint himself as a Democrat centrist – much like Arkansas’s U.S. Senator Mark Pryor and gubernatorial candidate – and former-Congressman – Mike Ross. The “centrist with community roots” shtick didn’t work out too well for Rockwell, and that should strike fear into the hearts of both Pryor and Ross in their 2014 contests. Moreover, it should sound alarm bells for a retreating Arkansas Democratic Party and Democratic Senate candidates across the nation.

Until 1969, the Arkansas state senate was entirely controlled by Democrats. By 2012, for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans took control of both the Arkansas House of Representatives and the State Senate. Previously, the 2010 elections saw Republicans take control of all four of Arkansas’s congressional seats. On the state level, the last bastion of the Southern Democrats appears to have fallen. The state that elected Bill Clinton as governor, Mark Pryor as a U.S. Senator, and Mike Ross as a congressman is a blue state no more.

On a national level, the election of John Cooper serves as a dire warning for Mark Pryor. Facing Republican Congressman Tom Cotton in the U.S. Senate race, Pryor needs to manage a decent performance in the 21st state senate district. Prior to the election, the liberal blog Daily Kos noted: “On the politics side of things, this election is huge. Craighead County is a key area of the state for both Mark Pryor and Mike Ross to win (they need to get at minimum 49 percent of the vote in this county to win the state) If Rockwell can’t put up a decent showing, Democrats are going to have some serious issues going into 2014.” With the election now over, it can be safely said that Rockwell did not put up a decent showing – unless you would call a 15-point blow-out decent. Even more telling is that Cooper did not run as a moderate and specifically targeted the signature Democrat achievement in recent years, Obamacare.

In U.S. Senate races across the country, incumbent Democrats are on the record parroting President Obama’s 2013 Lie of the Year, “If you like your plan, you can keep it. Period.” Republican challengers would be smart to take a lesson from John Cooper’s victory and not shy away from hammering home their opponents’ support of Obamacare. With national approval for Obamacare sinking – the Real Clear Politics average is at 39.9-percent in favor, 55.4-percent against – John Cooper’s victory may have been the Democrats’ canary in the coal mine moment. A wave is building and it could carry the Republicans back into control of the U.S. Senate.