Until the 1910s, Arkansas was the only state in the Union that did not invest in children through public education and was the only state that never voted to allocate taxes on property, income or commerce to finance schools. Those who wished to educate their children had to pay for it themselves. For only four months of each year, Arkansas students attended 836 one room, one teacher schools and 109 academies, averaging one or two teachers apiece. Arkansans traditionally have been fiercely independent, wary of big government, and loyal to their families and communities. They preferred to take care of their own. In 1910, Arkansas elected in succession a businessman and a professor who brought needed progressive reforms to the state, including a tax for higher education and commissions to encourage economic growth.
In the 1960s, Arkansas finally started to reform. Little Rock, once the subject of scorn, was acclaimed for its progress in race relations. Arkansas elected its first Republican governor since Reconstruction, the moderate Winthrop Rockefeller. He accomplished a number of important reforms, but was in turn defeated by the even more progressive Democrat Dale Bumpers in 1970. Bumpers further revitalized the progressive tradition, but powerful conservative forces in Arkansas continued to resist meeting the basic needs of the people. There was thus much work to be done, and Bill Clinton knew he had to be a part of it.
The Third Congressional District of Arkansas can be characterized as the "Ozark counties” in regional voting pattern studies by political scientists. The Ozark counties of northern and western Arkansas were distinctive among Arkansas counties for their higher voter participation, somewhat older population, somewhat greater expenditures on education and highways, and more favorable disposition toward Republicans.
Northwestern Arkansas has become reliably Republican in major political races, as prototypical Ozark counties. Republicans have had a base here since the uplanders’ opposition to secession. Significantly reinforcing and expanding this base, however, has been extraordinary recent population growth in that portion of Arkansas, due in large part to in-migration. Although growth was relatively flat in the 1980s, in both the 1970s and 1990s Arkansas’s growth rate was one of the fastest in the nation.
Inheritance, in-migration, and (sub) urbanism have uniquely combined in the Ozark counties to produce an environment where the Republican label is not only acceptable but increasingly advantageous. This area, closely coinciding with the Third Congressional District, has been represented by four different Republicans since John Paul Hammerschmidt gained the seat in 1966. It also supplies most of the votes in Republican primaries and is the foundation of recent Republican strength in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections. Indeed, until the 1990s, almost all Republicans elected to the state legislature came from this area.