Guest column: It happened in Arkansas

Years ago, I bumped into my old boss, former Arkansas Congressman Ed Bethune, on an elevator and he was gushing about how nice it would be to live in Idaho, where Republicans receive such enthusiastic support.

At the time, he never saw such a level of support in Arkansas. Democrats held the kind of stronghold in Arkansas that Republicans have held for so long in Idaho. Bethune, who served three terms in the House of Representatives, was one of the few Republicans who managed to win elections in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

It’s no mystery why Democrats were so strong in Arkansas. Gov. Bill Clinton was the pride and joy of the Democratic Party and Hillary, as the first lady, was a rising star. Arguably, the most popular political figure at that time was then-Sen. David Pryor, who also was a former governor. Bethune decided to challenge Pryor for the Senate in 1984 and Pryor won convincingly.

At the time, Democrats seemed to have a dynasty that wouldn’t quit. Today, Arkansas is almost as red as Idaho. Republicans hold all four House seats, one Senate seat and majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Arkansas also has voted consistently for Republicans in recent presidential elections.

So can Idaho turn from a Republican state to a Democratic state? It’s far too early to take that leap, but there may be at least slight movement in that direction — and especially if Idaho Republicans continue to stumble over themselves.

Back in the day, Arkansas Democrats were a pretty arrogant bunch and they took elections for granted. Democratic candidates always talked the conservative game, but their voting records didn’t match their rhetoric.

Over time, Republicans became the party of choice in Arkansas. The pattern for Idaho Republicans is much the same. They’re arrogant and tend to take elections for granted. And in the eyes of some, policy records of the likes of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Rep. Mike Simpson don’t live up to their conservative campaign themes.

A sea change in Idaho wouldn’t be easy for Democrats. For one thing, Democrats will never out-conservative the GOP in the Gem State. But Democrats could make headway talking about how Idaho’s leadership formula has led to Idaho being near last in education and first in low wages — issues that Sen. Russ Fulcher raised during his narrow loss to Otter in the governor’s race.

Unlike most years, Democrats have a decent shot at winning some big races — including governor, secretary of state, state treasurer and the 2nd District House seat. Democrats probably won’t win all those seats, but they could put a dent in the GOP machine by taking one or two. And if A.J. Balukoff wins the governor’s race, it will be the Democrats’ best election showing in decades.

The Dems still are a long way from winning over the majority of Idahoans, but there’s hope if Republicans don’t get their act together. If sweeping change can happen in Arkansas, then it can happen anywhere.

Malloy is a former Post Register political editor. He lives in Boise.