The Republican Party of Arkansas, along with the St. Francis County Republican Party, are preparing to apply pressure to elected county officials in 2018. Over the last month, each elected county officer has received a letter from the RPA asking them to change their party affiliation or be challenged.
In the letters, signed by RPA chairman Doyle Webb, St. Francis County officials were congratulated on their call to public service and then given an invitation to join the Republican Party.
“The Republican Party of Arkansas looks to expand its presence at the county level during the 2018 election cycle,” wrote Webb. “In the spirit of unity, I would like to personally extend an invitation to join the Republican Party.”
The letter gives county officials an April 30 deadline to switch sides.
The push comes as the Republican Party is experiencing historical success in the state of Arkansas. During the 2014 midterm elections, the last Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation was defeated, giving Arkansas its first Republican-only delegation since the Reconstruction Era. The same election made Asa Hutchinson the fourth Republican governor since 1874.
In the 2016 election, the Republican Party gained a supermajority in the Arkansas Legislature. Newfound successes across the state has prompted the Republican Party of Arkansas to venture into unchartered territory, including St. Francis County. Every elected county official in St. Francis County is a Democrat. Outside of the Quorum Court, no Republican has held office in the county for generations.
“It’s just a sound strategy,” said Steve Houserman, communications director of the RPA. “The Republican Party has accomplished a lot in the state Senate and House, and the next logical move would be to go after positions at the local level.”
Houserman and other members of the state’s Republican Party believe that a number of Delta Democrats are Republicans in disguise.
“What we’ve seen is a lot of people who have run as Democrats in the past, but are actually conservative,” said Houserman. “A lot of people have been afraid to show their real beliefs.
“The tides are turning,” he added. “We’re seeing people begin to switch sides. That’s the pulse we feel here in Arkansas.”
Houserman is not the only Republican official who feels the winds of change reaching the Democratic stronghold of the Arkansas Delta.
Lisa Reeves, chairman of a reenergized St. Francis County Republican Party, believes conservatives could see some local success. Reeves said the local party is planning to challenge each county Democrat.
“It’s our responsibility to find qualified people to fill all of these local positions,” said Reeves. “As the Republican Party of St. Francis County, our job is to find a Republican to fill these spots currently held by Democrats.
“A great number of Republicans came out and voted in the primary last year,” she added. “It cost at least one candidate his position. Had he run as a Republican, he likely would have won… I think we’ve reached a turning point here in the Delta.”
Despite new successes across the state of Arkansas, St. Francis County remains predominantly Democratic, as evident by voting figures from recent elections.
According to voting records maintained by the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, the total number of St. Francis County Democrat voters in the 2016 presidential election was down significantly compared to past presidential elections. More than 4,030 county residents voted for the Democratic candidate for president, down from 4,910 in 2012 and 5,486 in 2008.
Despite the decline, Democrats still outnumbered Republicans in presidential voting by more than 800 votes. And on average, approximately 1,000 less Republican voters show up to the polls in St. Francis County during midterm elections.
Last year, 3,195 St. Francis County voters cast a ballot for the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat. In 2014, only 2,198 voted for the Republican Senate candidate and 2,610 in 2010. The 2018 election won’t have a presidential or U.S. Senate race to energize Republican voters. Next year’s election will also be the first in which county officials will be elected to four-year terms.
Frederick Freeman, of the St. Francis County Democratic Central Committee, said the Republican push in the county wouldn’t change anything for local Democrats.
“There are two ways to run in St. Francis County: scared or unopposed,” said Freeman. “I can’t fault the Republican Party for trying to make inroads, but we’re going to continue to do what we do, and that’s to enhance our candidates’ situations.
“We’re aware of the outreach on their part,” he added. “We’ve had some meetings with some of our members, and we will continue to work hard and prepare for any competitor. It’s just par for the course.”
Freeman, who has led the DCC for more than a decade, has overseen the election of many local Democrats. When asked whether he was worried about the potential for Republican challengers in 2018, Freeman said he is concerned but always prepared.
“We’re always worried,” said Freeman. “But, we will continue to plan and we’ll execute those plans and let the chips fall where they may. It’s a competitive arena, but we will rise to the occasion.”
To date, no St. Francis County elected official has opted to change party affiliation.