Former Republican Nate Bell games out Democrats’ path to victory

Gun Rights

In my last column, I suggested that Republican overreaching and corruption provide Arkansas Democrats with an opportunity to gain ground politically and win elections in 2026. That opportunity is real. 

But existing political problems can’t be overcome until their existence is recognized, the causes identified, and the core issues resolved. One of those issues is the logical failure of false consensus, wherein we convince ourselves that most people agree with us. Everyone does it. Despite my best efforts, I’m sure it affects my perspective, even as I decry its effects.

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I’m unabashedly opposed to abortion in nearly all instances. I earned the endorsement of Arkansas Right to Life in each of my legislative races. I’m an NRA life member. I carry a concealed handgun daily. I own black rifles. My positions on gun policies have been described by Arkansas Times writers using a litany of colorful and less than complimentary adjectives. It’s fair to say that I’m well right of center on both topics. In spite of my personal views, I recognize that publicly available long-term Arkansas polling clearly indicates recent policy trends favor Democrats on these issues. One excellent example of this is the nearly 20% shift in voter attitudes on abortion laws that began in 2020, well before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that let states enact laws prohibiting abortion. A leftward trend also exists regarding gun control laws, though it’s happening much more slowly than the rapid shift on abortion. 

I attribute both changes mostly to perceived legislative overreach, but outside influences like the Dobbs decision and mass shootings certainly affect the speed. Concerns about legislative overreach contributed to the defeat of several constitutional amendments recently proposed by Arkansas lawmakers, including all three referred to voters in the 2022 election.

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I’m certain that when polled, the book bans, privacy invasions and other authoritarian laws passed by the 94th General Assembly will only further entrench voter beliefs that the Legislature is out of control. It’s notable that libraries polled at 83% approval in the 2023 Arkansas Poll, well ahead of every politician who has publicly attacked them.
No discussion of overreach by Arkansas elected officials is complete without a mention of our governor’s partially successful attempt to eliminate citizen access to most public records in a special session last year.

In recent years, very few political stories have connected with everyday, non-political Arkansans like the ongoing scandal surrounding the $19,029.25 custom lectern purchased by Gov. Sarah Sanders. No matter how carefully the rhetoric is scripted, Arkansans who work long hours to earn $40K annually are generally disgusted that our governor felt entitled to spend the equivalent of half their annual income on an obscenely overpriced prop.

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I’ve always believed that political scandals tend to “stick” when the best possible spin on them is still repulsive to non-political people. This one isn’t going away. Everyday Arkansans know it’s just not right, and they don’t like it. Coupled with other questionable circumstances ranging from altered documents to a sketchy Northwest Arkansas land deal to the recent credible accusation of seeking to “fix” a state House election in exchange for a six-figure patronage appointment, there’s more than enough for Democrats to build successful campaigns on government ethics, disclosure and spending accountability.  

If any such 2024 campaigns exist, I haven’t seen evidence of them. The issues raised in the Democratic campaigns I’m seeing look more like those I’d expect in primaries and not in general election campaigns where the goal is broad appeal. From my perspective, they’re a lot more like preaching to the choir and hoping for a big offering than any semblance of seeking converts. I’ll have more on that later.
In the meantime, let’s circle back to the false consensus I mentioned earlier. Yes, polling indicates Arkansas voters are making a leftward shift on policy, but it’s a LONG way from being overwhelming. The realigning electorate isn’t yet large enough to affect the outcome of an election in more than a handful of legislative districts, virtually all of which are currently held by Democrats.

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If electoral gains are the goal, a bigger tent is required. Coalitions must be built outside deep blue districts. Successful coalitions MUST include Trump voters and Sarah’s voters. I didn’t vote for either of them, but have been told many times that my positions on the Second Amendment and abortion make me unwelcome in Democratic circles. Math mandates that this kind of thinking has to change drastically. Twenty percent margins aren’t overcome with get out the vote efforts  or voter registration. Those things keep consultants and political grifters happy, but they only make a difference in close elections. 

Proselytizing is necessary. Conversions require persuasion, and persuasion requires credibility and rapport. 

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Of course every rule has exceptions, but generally, elections are won by winning voters’ trust and being likable. Accomplish both, and you will win elections. Fail and you will lose them.

Voters want to see a little of themselves reflected in candidates for elected office, but it must be genuine. Voters can spot inauthenticity through more layers than can be bought or staged. Candidates matter. If a candidate for office doesn’t fit in comfortably at the local hangouts, find another candidate. If they don’t have a record of civic involvement and public service, why would a voter believe their campaign rhetoric about seeking to serve? Nominating bad or unqualified candidates doesn’t evoke strength; it just damages your brand. 

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This brings me to identifying the races that are in play, candidate recruitment and allocation of resources. Chris Jones was a solid Democratic candidate for governor. If he wasn’t within 10 points in a legislative district, every penny spent in 2024 trying to elect a Democrat in that slot is wasted.

Some of the most vulnerable Republicans regularly run unopposed, while scarce resources are squandered targeting candidates who are disliked, but not vulnerable. I have extensive personal experience with this. I won both my re-election campaigns by margins exceeding 30% despite being a top target of Arkansas Democrats in both cycles. I was never vulnerable to defeat, and a few dollars spent polling — or even just a few minutes spent looking at data — would have made that clear. Vulnerable incumbents went unchallenged while I decisively crushed my opponents. Those targeting decisions were obviously made emotionally, not rationally. A winning political party identifies and selects target races based on reality, not anger or wishful thinking.

Arkansas Democrats held a press conference last October. Featured was a lectern they’d purchased at state surplus for $5. It was a great moment; in fact, it was genius-level staging. Then, instead of capitalizing on that great opportunity by focusing on exposing corruption and seeking accountability, or even to recount all the recent instances of legislative overreach, most of the time was devoted to complaining that the state implemented a Biden administration mandate on Medicaid eligibility too quickly.

Ask the folks on the bench in front of your local feed store or at the round table in back of the corner store if they care about how a Medicaid policy is implemented. Polling tells us that for most people, it’s not a priority. If you want to win elections, spend more time listening to them.

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They’ll tell you. 

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