LITTLE ROCK -- 2016 was a good year in a string of good years for Arkansas Republicans. GOP electoral gains in November, combined with gains made since 2010, have solidified its hold on power in the state, humbling the once monolithic Democratic Party, which faces an uncertain future as it comes to grips with the loss of the lock on power it held in Arkansas for more than 140 years.
Dating back to the end of Reconstruction, Democrats held a solid monopoly on power that lasted into the 21st Century. The Republican Party made occasional gains, picking up a few House seats here, a Senate seat there, even capturing the Governor's Mansion and establishing a foothold in Northwest Arkansas, but held little statewide clout until suddenly, beginning just a few years ago, everything changed.
And it did so with a swiftness that has left both parties trying to get their bearings as they find themselves abruptly dropped into unfamiliar territory. Republicans gained control of the Senate in 2012, then the House and the governor's office in 2014, and will go into the upcoming session with a House super majority of 76 members when the session begins in January.
As Democrats struggle to absorb the reality of their recent shift to minority party status, Republicans are still getting a feel for life in the driver's seat. And so far, say Republicans, it feels just fine.
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who is serving as majority leader in the senate this session, was elected to serve in the House of Representatives in 1995. He said at that time, Republicans barely had enough members to register on the radar, with clear boundaries minority party members were expected to stay within.
"There were 13 Republicans out of 100 members," Hendren said. "I've been where they are and I know the roles the minority and the majority have to play. They're going to have to adjust to the role of the minority party, which is to look for opportunities to attack, to criticize, and to say this isn't the right thing for the state. As the majority party we have to change our mode of thinking from one of criticizing and looking for political advantage to one of being certain that what we do produces results."
Hendren said he knows Democratic legislators have been chafing under the limitations that being in the minority party impose on members, but said discomfort aside, it goes with the territory.
"I was in the minority party. I know what that's like. Now it's their turn and I don't expect them to like it but I do think they understand it," Gravette said.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who serves as Senate president pro tempore, said gaining majority status four years ago resulted in an abrupt change in priorities and put Republicans into a different mindset.
"More than anything, I think it was just recognizing the responsibility that we have," Disman said. "When I came in, there were only about 25 or 26 Republicans in the House. We didn't really have to fully vet legislation we were introducing because there wasn't that much likelihood it would pass. Being in the majority, when we propose something, when it starts moving forward, we'd better fully understand what we've done and what the implications are going to be."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said having majorities in both chambers means that, while there will be inevitable disagreements among members, those disagreements primarily will be procedural, not policy.
"When you generally have people who agree upon the certain traditions of the party such as limited government, private sector growth, a strong public safety component, you look at significant agreement around those principles when have a base to work with," the governor said, adding, "You always have people who apply that in different ways. There's always going to be disagreements. But we have, whether Democratic or Republican, a fairly conservative group of legislators so the debate is going to be within that framework."
When talking about the political topography and how it has changed, Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said members may not have Democrats to worry about for the time being, but she cautioned that the lack of meaningful opposition comes with a corresponding lack of accountability, which she said poses an entirely different set of hazards.
"Having such an overwhelming majority allows us to accomplish a lot but in the long run I don't think it serves us or the state well. I believe in balance of power," she said. "Balance of power is the only thing that protects everyone's interests. When you've got nobody to answer to but yourself, it poses too much temptation."
Della Rosa said she hopes to see Democratic Party legislators continue to be involved and to not get sidelined because she said that diversity of opinion makes for better legislation.
"My hope is we'll continue to listen to the Democrats, not because we have to, but because it's the right thing to do," she said. "Democrats aren't in there to try and ruin things. Everything they propose is what they believe is the right thing to do. Besides, we're all trying to solve the same problems. We don't always agree on the best way to do that but we're working to the same goals."
Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, the House speaker, said a big part of his job is to make sure all viewpoints are heard, and he doesn't intend to squelch the Democratic members.
"Getting everyone involved is still my job, just like two years ago, just like it has been for any speaker. There is value in debate, in discussion, and no one party has a monopoly on all the good ideas or on the bad ideas for that matter. We have to function and work together, but it will be from a center-right perspective. Everyone needs to understand that," Gillam said.
Hutchinson said regardless of partisan sensibilities or differences among members, expectations of the House and Senate and of the Governor's office don't change, and the primary responsibility of the party in power is simple.
"To manage well," he said, "we cannot continue as a majority party, and we don't deserve that status if we do not accomplish the basic, fundamental role of government. That's protecting taxpayers, assuring public safety, and providing those services that government is supposed to provide. People expect the trains to run on time."