HOPE, Ark. – Much has changed since Bill Clinton grew up in this sleepy Arkansas town.
The former Clinton home is now a well-appointed museum. The old two-lane road in front grew into a bustling artery leading to a Wal-Mart. Across the street sits a taco truck, whose owner, immigrant Elvia Bello, sells her famous tamales to the small but growing Latino population in the once-segregated community.
But perhaps the biggest change of all in a state that once had reliably elected Democrats is the sandwich-board sign on a corner with hand-painted letters announcing: “Tea Party Meeting 4th Thursday 7 p.m.”
This busy intersection near the old Clinton homestead reflects a state at a crossroads. Far from the one that gave the nation its 42nd president, Arkansas has caught up with the political shift of its Southern neighbors. Now, even a place called Hope is no longer a Democratic stronghold, but an increasingly Republican one.
A fiery Republican populism is taking hold in many parts of this state, a transformation that by the end of this year could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
The road to a Republican Senate majority cuts directly through Arkansas and other Southern states where Democratic incumbents are struggling to hold on to their seats. Sens. Mary L. Landrieu in Louisiana and Kay Hagan in North Carolina are facing stiff challenges from Republicans, who need a net gain of six Senate seats to flip the chamber in November.
The Arkansas target is Sen. Mark Pryor, one of a handful of remaining Southern Democrats, remnants of a once-thriving breed of plain-speaking moderates whose ranks began shrinking during the party’s embrace of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and have accelerated into near-extinction after six years under President Obama.
The swiftness of the change in Arkansas is demonstrated by Pryor’s career. The affable heir to a political dynasty – his father is a popular former governor and senator – was so thoroughly embraced by his state six years ago that he glided to a second term unopposed by the GOP, winning 80 percent of the vote.
Since then, Republicans have claimed the statehouse, the House delegation and the second Senate seat, and are seizing on this year’s race as a high-profile display of their ascendancy.
“Everybody on both sides recognizes this is a huge cycle that locks in a new normal,” said Jay Barth, a politics professor at Hendrix College.
“Is that new normal ongoing, competitive two-party competition?” he said. “Or is the new normal a state that looks more like a Mississippi, an Alabama or a Tennessee that’s gone so emphatically Republican? It’s one of those elections where a path is going to be taken. It’s just unclear what path it is.”
Pryor is struggling to fend off tea party freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, who represents the southwestern corner of the state, including Hope.
“We’re going to fight hard and fight for every vote,” Pryor said on a recent Saturday afternoon after tossing candy from the back of a pickup in the picturesque Magnolia Blossom Festival Parade, just outside Hope. “All I can do is run a good race, remind people what I’ve done for the state. It’s up to them. It depends on what kind of senator they want.”
The choice for Arkansans could not be starker. Cotton, a generation younger than Pryor, appeals to the rightward shift with a military background, conservative views on social issues and an opposition to most new spending – even spurning a farm bill that has provided essential government assistance to rural communities in Arkansas.
Here in Hope, the slogans voters hear the most in television and radio ads are negative, with each candidate vilifying the other. Campaigns and outside groups have spent more than $15 million on the race.
John Caldwell, whose Tailgater Burger Co. restaurant seems to be single-handedly trying to revive a forgotten downtown, is part of the swing to the right, having voted for Pryor in 2008, but is undecided whether he will do the same in November.
“My dad always preached to me, ‘You go with the Democrats, you can’t go wrong.’ I don’t know if he’d preach that anymore,” said Caldwell, a Hope native who says he has grown weary of government intervention and “too much giveaway.”
Other Southern states began turning away from Democrats during the civil rights era and then helped fuel the rise of President Ronald Reagan, but Arkansas voters were more reluctant to abandon the party and often wavered from race to race.
“If Republicans win in Arkansas in 2014, which I believe we will, it will cripple the Democratic Party here for more than a generation,” said David Ray, campaign spokesman for Cotton.
Strategists, academics and voters largely agree on the tipping point: Obama.
“The vehement, really pretty deep dislike and distrust of the president among white Arkansans, especially white rural Arkansans, it’s fair to say, is pretty intense,” Barth said.
Republican strategist Bill Vickery calls Obama, alternately, the “Darth Vader” and the “bubonic plague of the Democratic Party in Arkansas.”
“There is a serious anti-Obama sentiment and he is far and away the engine that is destroying the Democratic Party in Arkansas,” said Vickery, a radio talk show host. “My lefty friends all like to point to race as an issue, and I’m not going to deny that. There is a percentage of it that is race.”