If you like humility, you've got to love the Republican Party of Arkansas.
Two years ago it had a room with a view in the Twin City Bank Building overlooking the Arkansas River. Now it operates in a windowless office above the Trailways bus station.
Its photocopy machine was repossessed. It has no credit cards. Four party chairmen in a row died or resigned before their terms were finished.
The latest chairman, Len Blaylock, is a retired Air Force navigator who lives on a farm in Nimrod, about 50 miles from Little Rock.
The vice chairman, Sharon Trusty, lives in Russellville about 80 miles away. She says that if anything happens to Blaylock she's going back to Russellville.
They commute to the office above the bus station three or four times each week. They don't get paid. Parking costs them $90 a month. There is no paid staff. Phone calls are discouraged.
The party is thought to be about $93,000 in debt, but no one knows for sure. A thorough audit would cost $6,000, which the party can't afford.
A month ago a field worker from the Republican National Committee paid a visit. He was polite. He looked around and said there was not much the RNC could do. Services, yes; money, no, he said.
Blaylock received the news well.
"We think the national committee does not believe in Arkansas," he said. "And we're ready to admit they have good reason not to believe in us. We haven't been able to set high goals, because the immediate goals have been: 'Let's try not to have the utilities cut off and the doors closed.' "
What's going on in Arkansas? Why are state Republican parties growing and thriving all over Dixie, from North Carolina to Texas, but not here? Where are the armies of young upwardly mobile Republicans? Where is the new wealth? Where are the votes?
It is not enough to say that Arkansas Republicans are still suffering from the one-party syndrome that began with the Civil War and Reconstruction. That was true in every state in the South, Most of them have developed competitive Republican parties. Arkansas voters have shown signs of joining the trend (Reagan won 62 percent of the vote here in 1984), but the party itself lags far behind.
A Republican, John Paul Hammerschmidt, represents the northwest corner of the state in Congress, but he is the only Republican in the Arkansas delegation, and in fact the ranking elected Republican official. Both senators, Dale Bumpers and David H. Pryor, are Democrats, as are Gov. Bill Clinton and all the state constitutional officers. In the legislature, 13 of 135 members are Republicans.
Some political observers say there has been no Republican surge in Arkansas because the Democrats have fielded a series of quality candidates. "I think it's almost as simple as that -- good candidates have helped us and hurt the Republicans," said Sandy Ledbetter, director of the state Democratic Party. "People ask me: 'How do you keep getting these good candidates?' I say it's the water and Texas wants to buy it."
Others say the problems for Arkansas Republicans today can be traced back to the man who brought them their greatest success -- Winthrop Rockefeller, the wealthy moderate who served as governor in the late 1960s and emphasized economic development and civil rights. There are two distinct theories on Rockefeller's impact, both surprising.
Blaylock, the Republican chairman, thinks the GOP became almost totally dependent on Rockefeller's considerable wealth, so it never developed alternative sources of money. "In 1964 Winthrop Rockefeller decided to make Arkansas a two-party system, which he financed himself," said Blaylock. "When he withdrew from party politics in the early 1970s [he was dying of cancer], we had nothing in place. And it's been that way ever since."
Dale Enoch, a political consultant and pollster, thinks Rockefeller had a bracing affect on the state's Democrats.
"It took Winthrop Rockefeller to break the stranglehold of racism and segregation on Arkansas politics," said Enoch. "He kept beating the Democratic segregationists, and forced the party to look for a new, better kind of candidate. It's a real irony, but over the course of history, Winthrop Rockefeller may prove to have been the best thing that ever happened to Arkansas Democrats. He made it possible for Dale Bumpers to get elected in 1970, and that started the chain that continues to this day."