Collapse of the Democrat Big Tent

Collapse of the Democrat Big Tent
Guest article by David Ferguson

ferg-on-politics-1When I started working for the Arkansas legislature in 1980, the Democratic Party was already being called the “Big Tent Party.” This meant you could be a flaming liberal, a staunch conservative, or somewhere in between and still be a Democrat.  It truly was a three-ring circus. If you wanted to be elected, you needed to run as a Democrat. There were only a few Republicans in the legislature.

But over the years conservatives found themselves increasingly unwelcome in the Democrat tent, as the Arkansas Democratic Party began to resemble the very liberal Democratic National Committee. Conservatives who won as Democrats were pressured to conform to the liberal agenda.

I think it is important to remember that in the past conservatives had to make sacrifices to switch to the Republican Party. One legislator who refused to give up conservative values despite the cost is Linda Collins-Smith from Pocahontas. She was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat in 2011.  At the time, Northeast Arkansas was still a place where people assumed conservatives could be Democrats. Once in Little Rock she found that was no longer true.  She soon found herself being attacked by the liberal leadership of the House of Representatives who demanded she fall in line with liberal positions. She refused.

Attacks from liberal leaders made Linda Collins-Smith realize the Democratic Big Tent no longer existed and conservatives were no longer welcome. I was still working for the legislature at the time and had the opportunity to visit with her.  She knew a switch to the Republican Party would cost her politically, but as a conservative she belonged in the Republican Party.

Democrats tried to get rid of her by gerrymandering her House district to put her in the same district as a Republican incumbent.  Instead, she ran as a Republican for the state Senate against an incumbent Democratic Senator.  She lost but received a lot of support in an area that had not had a Republican State Senator.  Two years later she ran for the Senate again – this time she received over 58% of the vote and even won in her Democratic opponent’s home county.

Senator Linda Collins-Smith’s experience of standing up for conservative values, despite the consequences, strengthened her resolve to continue to stand up for conservative values.  This was evident when she refused to go along with the plan to rename and keep Obamacare Medicaid Expansion.  She even refused to cave in, when big government advocates used outrageously untrue budget numbers to claim communities in her district would suffer if she didn’t vote to continue the Obamacare program.  Nor did she back down when a local newspaper took the opportunity to attack her based on the bogus claims of doom and gloom.

Senator Linda Collins-Smith is not the only person to make sacrifices to stand up for her values. Over the decades there have been a many others.

There have been additional party switches over the past couple of year. For some the switch meant strong opposition in their districts from liberal Democrats. For others, the switch was easy because the voters in their districts had begun voting for Republicans.

zirkuszelt-redWith the success of the Republican Party not everyone who runs as a Republican will do so because of conservative values.  There are always some opportunists in any political party. A county official was heard to say he switched to the Republican Party because, “I need friends in Little Rock” and state government is now overwhelmingly Republican.  A few years ago, a freshman Republican legislator told his Democrat seatmate, “Don’t worry I’m a RINO. I wanted to get elected and the district is overwhelmingly Republican.” That legislator is still in office!

Will the Republican Party in Arkansas become the next “Big Tent Party?” I don’t think so.  At least not in the way the Democrat Party was the Big Tent Party. It is hard to imagine pro-abortion, anti-gun, politically correct liberals sneaking into the Republican tent.

Does that mean everyone in the Republican tent is the same? No.  The primary division in the Republican tent right now is between those Republicans who are fiscally conservative (sometimes called Tea Party Republicans) and those who are comfortable with growing government (sometimes called Establishment Republicans). Even with some division there will be much common ground in the Republican tent as Republicans look for ways to make government more efficient.

It will be interesting to watch how the election of Donald Trump as President will influence Arkansas politics.  If President Trump is successful in his economic goals, the Arkansas Democratic tent may have to be replaced with a pup tent.

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David Ferguson is a former Director of Arkansas’ Bureau of Legislative Research, having a thirty-two-year career as an attorney for the Arkansas legislature.  After retirement from state service his primary focus has been beef cattle farming. He is also a former officer of Conduit for Action.