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June 17, 2014 11:25 AM Limits of Partisan Realignment in the South

By Ed Kilgore

A big part of the reason that U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton entered the 2014 cycle as a prohibitive Beltway favorite to knock off Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor was the logic of partisan realignment. Arkansas lagged behind much of the former Confederacy in the abandonment of the Donkey Party by white voters, particularly at the subpresidential level. But it has been catching up rapidly since 2008, and its relatively low percentage of African-American voters (and their very low level of turnout) meant Democrats had no real cushion against what looked to be a freefall. With ticket-splitting declining steadily, and given the national midterm “falloff” problem experienced by Democrats everywhere, aggravated by low approval ratings for the president, Pryor looked toasty very early on.

But the decision of Republicans in Arkansas and in Washington to make Cotton the beneficiary of all these trends is now in danger of backfiring. As I noted (citing Politico’s VandeHei and Allen, no less) early in 2013, this man with the golden resume is a stone ideologue who may be incapable of adjusting himself to political reality even in the relatively benign territory of a midterm election in a southern red state.

Greg Sargent draws attention to Cotton’s ideological problems at the Plum Line today:

Cotton has been described as a uniter of the establishment and Tea Party. But Politico has a good piece today spelling out Cotton’s views: He is the lone Republican in the state’s Congressional delegation to vote against the Farm Bill, the Violence Against Women Act, and disaster aid. He supported the Republican Study Committee budget, which is to the right of the Paul Ryan blueprint.
And buried in the Politico piece is news that Cotton is also open to privatizing Social Security accounts:
When Cotton was asked whether he believed Social Security should be privatized, he responded, “I wouldn’t say that,” before advocating for gradually raising the retirement age to 70. But in response to a follow-up question about whether taxpayers should be allowed to have personalized — or privatized — Social Security accounts, Cotton said “everything needs to be on the table” to “modernize” the program and ensure it’s “available for the next generation.”
Coming soon to a TV ad in Arkansas living rooms.
The question all of this raises: Is Cotton’s view of the proper role of government too extreme even for a deep red state like Arkansas?

More to the point, can Cotton “etch-a-sketch” his way back to the center? I don’t think so.

What a lot of political observers seem to miss about today’s “constitutional conservatives” is that they view the utility of elections strictly in terms of how far they take the country towards a fixed agenda of radical change. Losing while maintaining one’s “conservative principles” is acceptable so long as the GOP is maintained as a vehicle for The Big Change once Republicans seize total power. From their point of view, it’s essential that candidates in the most favorable red turf are as ideologically pure as is possible. Hence: the ongoing effort to replace Thad Cochran with Chris McDaniel, and the selection of Cotton as the GOP champion in Arkansas.

Cotton may well win, of course, but it probably won’t be because he moderated his views. As I said of his ilk last year:

Asking them to be “realistic” is like staring into the eyes of a goat and expecting to find a glimmer of comprehension. It just ain’t happening, and the punditocracy had best remember that next time it is surprised by right wing intransigence, which will shine on brightly through all the haze of conventional politics.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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