By Joe Klein
October 6, 2014

Rison, Arkansas

There was one African-American who attended Tom Cotton’s early afternoon rally in a pleasant little grove of trees on Rison’s dusty Main Street. Her name was Patricia Mays and she was running for state representative–as a Republican, against a Democratic incumbent. Mays is young and attractive, and very straight ahead: She has a PhD in industrial engineering from Texas A&M, and she has four issues. They are: abortion, education reform, health care and jobs. We spoke about all of them and she had some interesting ideas, especially in health care where she supports a system of local clinics where the doctors are paid directly by the patients, eliminating the insurance companies. “Then you could offer a major medical plan on top of that,” she said. (We didn’t talk about how this would be funded, but she said, correctly, that it would be a lot cheaper with the insurance companies out of the picture.)

I asked her why she was running as a Republican. “Because of my personal values,” she said. And what did her African-American friends think of it? “People tend to vote the party without thinking about it too much. They don’t know the details. But when I tell the people in my church, for example,” she said, that the Democrats may have been for civil rights but, “they’re in favor of abortion and the homosexual agenda, people say, ‘I didn’t know that.'”

This is somewhat hard to believe, given the never-ending wonderwall of negative television ads–although, significantly, I haven’t seen any ads that vamped on the “homosexual agenda.” But it’s not hard to believe that bright conservative African-American (and Latino) candidates like Mays are going to have a piece of the American future.

The Republicans have given Democrats the gift of intolerance in a rapidly-changing country. A Republican officeholder in Tennessee told me privately, “If we could get immigration solved, a lot of conservative, church-going, business-owning Hispanics would be a natural fit for our party.” This is not a new thought: it was at the heart of Karl Rove’s party-building mantra. As time passes, though, I sense that many more Republican office-holders are seeing the wisdom and efficacy, and also the justice, of this path. I’d be surprised in a Republican Congress didn’t come up with some immigration plan in the next term. The problem is that nativism is as compelling as ever down among the grass roots.

The Democrats, meanwhile, seem smug and bereft of any significant ideas for reforming a government that everyone I’ve met on this road trip–everyone–assumes is too big, broken and inept. Granted, it’s the South…but the news in the world is grim and scary. “Given what’s happened this week,” says Tom Cotton, noting the Secret Service and Ebola breaches, “it’s not easy to argue that the government is doing its job very well.”

And you can bet that Leon Panetta’s bombshell portrayal of President Obama as easily disappointed and unwilling to fight will find its way to the public–those sorts of characterizations always do–and have an impact, especially on disappointed Democrats in the coming election.

As I proceed on these road trips, year after year, the levels of disgust and cynicism just seem to compound. I’ll have more to say about that in my print column this week.

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