Bill Clinton returned to Arkansas in a bid to keep the US Senate Democratic, but he is fighting a Republican wave that could claim all Deep South senators for the first time in a decade.
Bubba — Clinton’s nickname harking back to his Southern roots — remains popular in his home state a full 14 years after he left the presidency.
His return to the campaign trail for some of his old friends has put their candidacies in the spotlight in a region where the political landscape is virtually unrecognizable from Clinton’s days as governor here.
“Vote your heart,” an impassioned Clinton told a few thousand people at the University of Central Arkansas as he stumped for his old driver Mike Ross, now running for Arkansas governor, Senator Mark Pryor who is facing a tough re-election battle, and a cast of congressional candidates Clinton has known for decades.
“There is nothing that can hold us back but us,” Clinton said.
But Clinton’s immense powers of persuasion may not be enough to stall what experts, local politicians and even his acolytes acknowledge is a dramatic party re-alignment in Arkansas.
Democrats ruled the South for a century, but since the 1990s they have been in free-fall in a region that, despite increasing diversity, has grown more conservative.
“They just voted Democratic because their father and grandfather were Democrats,” state lawmaker Ken Bragg told AFP at Timberfest, a down-home lumberjack event in the southern Arkansas town of Sheridan.
A decade ago Republicans could barely crack into local political positions. When Bragg won in 2012, he became the district’s first Republican in the Arkansas House of Representatives in 150 years.
Today, Arkansas’s Senate and House have Republican majorities for the first time ever.
– A red wave –
“I think they’re realizing now that the Democratic Party really doesn’t reflect the values that they have, and our Republican Party reflects more what they believe in,” Bragg said.
He stressed that while Clinton deserves respect, the 2014 election is less about Clinton than Arkansas catching up with its sister Southern states in its rightward shift.
“I’m not so sure he’s going to change a whole lot of votes, really.”
A political thunderclap hit Arkansas in 2010, when Senate Democrat Blanche Lincoln lost to a Republican in a landslide, and it has been downhill since for Democrats.
President Barack Obama and his policies are loathed throughout the South. His approval rating is in the thirties — even lower among white males.
And with the south’s social conservatives furious over Obama’s historic health care reform and other policies, Republican strategists are trying to finish off Democrats in the South by tying as many Democrats to Obama as they can.
Clinton blasted Republicans’ anti-Obama protest-vote tactics as a “scam,” and railed against outside groups using wedge issues to push the South even further Republican.
“Everybody is trying to hijack our politics,” Clinton warned.
“You have to own it here, because only your lives will be affected (and) after this election they’ll go off and worry about something else.”
Vietnam veteran Tyrone Hammond, 65, agreed.
“You look at every Republican ad, they’re talking more about standing up against Obama than what they’re going to do for the state,” winced the retired African-American who insisted Obama’s skin color was the driving force behind southern white flight from his party.
“The only way we’re going to get a fair shake is if we get Democrats in office.”
That mission has grown tougher. In 1964, during the US Congress that passed the Civil Rights Act, 115 of the 128 lawmakers from the former confederate states were white Democrats. Today they hold 25 of 160 seats.
Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu are the remaining two Deep South Democrats in the Senate. Both are in peril. Republicans already control the US House, and if they win a net six Senate seats in November, they will control that chamber too.
“We have a lot at stake,” Pryor said.
– Clinton faithful turning –
But even old Clintonites are shifting.
Sue Wagnon, whom governor Clinton appointed to the Arkansas medical advisory board in 1984, admires him but said he could not convince her to back Pryor again because the senator was voting in lockstep with Obama.
“I want to do what’s right for our country,” she told AFP at a campaign stop for Pryor’s Republican challenger Tom Cotton.
Several rural residents sounded convinced that Arkansas Democrats were on their way out.
“A lot of Democrats will be crossing party lines to vote Republican this time,” said one woman voter from Danville.
Sterling Morton, an ex-professor who runs a mechanics business in Conway, said many of his neighbors profess to be Democrats but he believes they are too anti-Obama, anti-abortion and pro-gun to vote blue.
“When you scratch the surface of all these Democrats, there’s not a Democrat under there,” Morton said.