The New Switcheroo

Recounting the Arkansas GOP Saga

“You’ll be writing in November about the great year Republicans had in Arkansas,” Rep. John Boozman (R.-Ark.) told me when I interviewed him earlier this year about his campaign for the U.S. Senate, “And you’ve got to talk to John Paul. He was key to getting it all started way back when.”

Boozman was right. On November 2, he was elected as the Razorback State’s second Republican senator since Reconstruction in a landslide over Democratic incumbent Blanche Lambert Lincoln. Republicans also went from holding one out of Arkansas’ four U.S. House seats to a historic three out of four.

Republicans were also triumphant with the elections of Mad Pizza Company owner Mark Darr as lieutenant governor and State Rep. Mark Martin as secretary of state. In addition, the GOP shot up from eight seats in the 35-member state senate to 15 and from 28 to 45 seats in the 100-member state house of representatives.

Although Republican former State Sen. Jim Keet was defeated in his race against Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, the results from races for lower offices guarantee that Republicans will have a strong bench of candidates who will try to capture the governorship.

And “John Paul,” as Boozman and just about everyone in Arkansas calls him, is 88-year-old John Paul Hammerschmidt, Republican U.S. representative from the 3rd District from 1966-92. The state’s first Republican U.S. House member since Reconstruction, Hammerschmidt (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 90%) was also chairman of the state Republican Party when it was in the proverbial telephone booth.

Much of the credit for launching a competitive Republican Party in Arkansas has been given to Winthrop Rockefeller, who was the state’s first GOP governor in a century from 1966-70. But even before the moderate Rockefeller deployed his wealth and contacts on behalf of the party, Arkansans who sought a genuine two-party system looked to the conservative Hammeschmidt for leadership.

John Paul The First

“I always thought I’d support prima donnas for office,” Hammerschmidt told me from his office in Harrison, Ark., “I never thought I’d become one myself.”

After seeing action as a combat pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, the young Hammerschmidt returned to his home in Boone County to run his family’s lumber business. He became a Republican at a time when the GOP held no offices in Arkansas and “maybe 40 people participated in the primary in our county,” he recalled.

“And the reason I became a Republican,” Hammerschmidt said, “and others like me did, was that we felt it was unhealthy if our state had a one-party system.”

Like so many who appear eager after joining small organizations, the young Hammerschmidt soon found himself doing much of the work in the party. In short order, he became Boone County GOP chairman, state party treasurer and state chairman.

Hammerschmidt credits transplanted New Yorker Winthrop Rockefeller for bringing money and resources to the state party that boosted Republicans tremendously in the late 1950s and early ’60s. But when 1964 came, Hammerschmidt joined state GOPers who were strongly backing Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination over Winthrop’s brother, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

In November, Goldwater lost Arkansas to Lyndon B. Johnson, but in the state’s 3rd District, 20-year Democratic Rep. James Trimble to a career-low 54% of the vote.

The GOP nominee, cattle rancher Jerry Hinshaw, did not want to run again in 1966. So the Republican hierarchy in the Ozarks-based 3rd District pleaded with Hammerschmidt, past president of the Arkansas Lumber Dealers Association, to carry their banner. He finally agreed and, in his words, “made just about every beef roast and chicken luncheon there was.” Hammerschmidt defeated Trimble with 53.6% of the vote.

In crediting Rockefeller’s romp to the governorship that year with assisting his own race for Congress, Hammerschmidt also said that “voter anger over the Vietnam War and LBJ’s domestic policy” were the biggest factors in his election and that of the 52 other Republicans who unseated House Democrats that year. As he put it, “It was a lot like this election. Voters get mad at the party in power and turn to the party out of power.”

Hammerschmidt’s attention to constituent needs helped make the 3rd District (home to 35 of the state’s 75 counties) one of the safest for Republicans in the South. He never had a close re-election except for the so-called “Watergate Year” of 1974, when a young law professor named Bill Clinton held him to 52% of the vote.

“And Bill always tells me, if I had not defeated him, he would not have become President,” chuckled Hammerschmidt, recalling how Clinton was subsequently elected attorney general and governor and thus became more of a national Democratic player than he would have been as a congressman.

Hammerschmidt acknowledges that Arkansas was far behind its sister Southern states in moving from Democrat to Republican in the 1970s and ’80s and, even after the results of 2010, this is still “a work in progress.” The slower transition, he says, “is due to Democrats here still being able to nominate candidates who sound more moderate than liberal. Nominating someone like my friend David Pryor [former Democratic governor and senator], Bill Clinton, or [present Gov] Mike Beebe makes it harder for Republicans to tell conservatives the Democratic Party has left them.”

Ever the party man, Hammerschmidt always encouraged fellow Republicans to run in difficult races and thus lay the groundwork for eventual wins. In hailing former Gov. (1996-2006) Mike Huckabee as a pivotal figure in putting conservative GOPers in the strong position they now are in Arkansas, Hammerschmidt also praised other Republicans who made losing races against the odds:  Frank White (who actually unseated Gov. Clinton in 1980 and lost to him in ’82), Judy Petty (the state’s Reagan for President leader in 1976, who lost two House races), and Ed Bethune, who lost for attorney general in 1976 but served in the House from 1978-84.

“They were running as conservative Republicans when it wasn’t fashionable,” said Hammerschmidt, “And that’s what you have to do: Keep flying the flag, don’t give up and never be afraid to lose. You’ll win eventually.”

The New Switcheroo

Even after their great showing throughout the South on November 2, Republicans continued to gain political ground with the ongoing story of switches by Democratic office-holders to the GOP.

In Georgia last week, Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell announced that he was changing from Democrat to Republican. Bell’s decision was a major news story in the Peach State because he was African-American and past president of the College Democrats of America. Bell told reporters, “As I saw the party become more liberal, I became less involved in the Democratic Party.” Joining Bell in the move to the Republican Party is another African-American, Democratic State Executive Committee Member Andre Walker.