Is the Clinton magic gone in Arkansas?

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton is the former first lady of Arkansas
  • But Arkansas might not be friendly to Clinton if she runs for president
  • Clinton's challenge reflects broader political changes in the South

Little Rock, Arkansas (CNN)This state launched the Clinton brand two decades ago and handed Hillary Clinton one of the biggest victories of her 2008 primary battle against Barack Obama.

But as she considers another bid for the White House in 2016, Arkansas isn't so friendly.
In the final weeks of the 2014 election, top Democrats in Arkansas told Hillary Clinton and her associates that she wasn't welcome to stump for the party's candidates in the state, according to a knowledgeable source. While there were some in Arkansas who wanted her to come, the "stay away" contingent won the argument and Hillary Clinton was left to raise money for Sen. Mark Pryor from New York.
    Bill Clinton made up for the absence, making 13 stops in the state during campaign season imploring voters to not make the election a repudiation of President Barack Obama.
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    Still, Democrats across Arkansas lost big. The governor's mansion flipped red, along with Pryor's Senate seat. The state's four-member House delegation is solidly Republican.
    The rout was part of a broader repudiation of Democrats across the South this election cycle. But the results in Arkansas were particularly tough for the Clintons and raise questions about whether the state most associated with the couple is no longer welcome territory ahead of Hillary Clinton's potential 2016 race.
    "The coattails were short," outgoing Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe told CNN. "It is a fact."

    Changes in Arkansas

    Bill Clinton handily won Arkansas during both of his presidential elections. But the politics of the South changed during his time in office as many states were increasingly dominated by Republicans.
    Arkansas was a genuine battleground state during the 2000 election, when Al Gore and George W. Bush both campaigned here and spent money on television ads. Seeking to distance himself from Bill Clinton after his impeachment, Gore didn't campaign with the former President and lost Arkansas to Bush by 5 points.
    By 2008, Arkansas was seen as so unfriendly to Democrats that Obama wrote the state off -- even as he won other southern states like North Carolina and Virginia that Republicans carried for decades.
    Before the 2014 election, Hillary Clinton's supporters -- many at the grassroots level in Arkansas -- would quietly talk about the former first lady's chances of competing and winning Arkansas in 2016. They touted her standing with white women and working class voters.
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    But after Election Day, those optimistic Democrats are harder to find.
    "Limited," said Vincent Insalaco, the chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party, when asked about Hillary Clinton's chances of winning the state. "It is limited here in Arkansas."
    "I think she could run a strong race here, but I think the electorate has changed," said Clarke Tucker, a newly elected Democratic state representative. "The state has changed."
    Hillary Clinton moved to Arkansas in 1974, joining her soon-to-be husband, Bill, who was already a rising political star in the state. The couple would go on to dominate the state's politics for the better part of two decades and left a long list of confidants -- known as FOBs or Friends of Bill -- in key Democratic positions across the state.
    But times have changed. Republican power bases in northwest Arkansas have grown, religious conservatives are a powerful voting bloc and the state's Latino population has yet to become a force at the ballot box.
    "Arkansas is a real demographic nightmare for Democrats," said Andrew Dowdle, the vice chair of political science at the University of Arkansas. "It is a complete reversal of fortunes."
    All of this complicates the idea that Hillary Clinton could win Arkansas in 2016. During the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton dominated Obama, winning 70% of the state, her largest victory during that year's primary fight. That was the only time she has been on the ballot in the state, however, and was a contest with just Democratic voters.
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    The 2014 exit polls in Arkansas weren't positive for Hillary Clinton, either. Thirty-nine percent of voters said she would make a good president, according to the exit polls. Fifty-six percent said she would not.
    Those same exit polls found that former GOP Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is also considering a 2016 run, is seen as a better presidential option in the state than Hillary Clinton. Fifty percent of voters in Arkansas said he would be a good president, compared to 46% who said he wouldn't.
    With the former first lady eyeing another run at the presidency in 2016, Democrats and Arkansas experts said that while she would easily win the Democratic primary, she would struggle mightily to overcome what has become a changed state.

    Democrat's silver lining: Obama is gone in 2016

    Democrats in Arkansas blame Obama -- not the Clintons -- for their losses.
    One reason Beebe, the outgoing governor, sees things getting better for Democrats in 2016 and beyond is because "Obama will be gone."
    "I think it is all Obama," Beebe said. "I don't think there is any question that most folks feel like it was a repudiation of the president and the president's policies. But I think it is cyclical and the reason I say that is if you look at the history."
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    "Democrats are looking at what can she do different from Barack Obama," said Dowdle. "If you are a Democratic party activist, you would end up hoping she would win white women. ... That idea that a woman candidate could end up running and making the gap grow is not going to happen."
    Exit polls show that Beebe is partly right: Nearly 70% of voters in Arkansas said they disapprove of Obama. Only 30% said they were satisfied with him.
    For Inalasco, 2016 -- and a Hillary Clinton run - is a moment to rebuild.
    "I would hope that she would carry Arkansas," he said, rejecting the idea that Democrats are done in the state. "But if she runs it is so, so positive for us on the local level, here, for what we can do with her popularity."
    As for whether the Clinton magic is gone in Arkansas, Inalasco deferred his answer for two years.
    "I guess," he said, "we will see what happens in 2016, won't we?"