Think you’re facing an uphill battle at work? Consider Grant Tennille’s new job.

He’s just volunteered to lead a state Democratic Party that in a decade went from dominating Arkansas politics to being basically uncompetitive at the state and national levels. The party’s State Committee elected him chairman Sept. 25 in a contested race. He plans to work full-time at no pay.

How bad has it gotten for Arkansas Democrats? Republicans now control every congressional and statewide office and four-fifths of the Legislature. In the 2020 presidential election, President Joe Biden won barely over a third of the vote. In the past two election cycles, no Democrat running for a statewide office has cracked 37%.

Tennille’s rebuilding efforts start with raising money and rebuilding the party’s headquarters staff. He plans to spend a lot of time on the phone.

“I have tons of relationships all the way across this state, and there are lots of Democrats who have expressed interest to me in my running and have told me that they’ll be there if I’m elected,” he told me. “And now that I’m elected, I’m going to be calling them up and saying, ‘Time to write that check.’”

Tennille is well known in Arkansas political and business circles. He spent seven-and-a-half years working various jobs in Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration. As director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, he led the successful effort to land the Big River Steel plant in Mississippi County. He’s spent the past three years working as an unpaid economic development advisor to Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott.

Tennille in his early 20s worked as a political reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where he covered meetings thinking lawmakers should be doing things differently. He knew he would not be satisfied being an observer. He made the leap when his editor, Rex Nelson, became Gov. Mike Huckabee’s communications director and hired him to join his staff.

In other words, the Democratic Party chairman got his start in politics working for the third Republican governor elected since Reconstruction – and the father of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, likely Arkansas’ next governor.

Asked about those ironies, Tennille said he was a Democrat even when he started working for Huckabee. He wanted to get involved in the process. He was loyal to Nelson. Back then, he said, there wasn’t that big of a difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Tennille said today’s Democrats will focus on issues such as the state’s response to COVID-19, rural infrastructure, and opposing the growing interest among some Republicans in abolishing the state income tax. He sees Democrats as being both pro-business and inclusive. He said the party will oppose Republican “extremists” in the Legislature. He said Democrats are the “party of facts. We’re the party that supports science. We’re the party that thinks that we ought to think rationally about our challenges. And I’m not seeing a whole lot of that from the other side.”

Among Tennille’s biggest challenges will be the fact that Democrats at the national level are more culturally liberal than many Arkansans. I told Tennille that politics has become so nationalized and culture-war based that Republican control could last 40-50 years. No matter what he does, it’ll be tough for him to overcome issues like transgender bathrooms.

“Well, look, I have heard that same opinion from lots of folks, and it may be valid,” he replied. “But I’m not willing to give up. I’m not willing to give up on the two-party system as it exists. I just think that at this point in Arkansas, the Democratic Party needs to do a better job of reconnecting with its voters and telling people what we stand for.

“And if you’re right, you’re right, but I’m not going to give up where we’re sitting right now. We’ve got to fight because we feel like we’re the proper representatives of the working people of Arkansas. Some of them are a bit confused at the moment about who’s really got their best interests at heart, but we’re going to talk to them, and we’re going to let them know.”

Republicans, of course, also believe they are the proper representatives. They will continue to dominate Arkansas politics for a while.

Tennille will try to change that by working hard – and working the phones – even though he’s working for free.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.