Party leaders in state plan a competitive '18

Published 4 December 2017

An attempted revival of Democrats in Arkansas is being mounted in legislative districts that the party lost or ignored in 2016, with candidates announcing that they intend to run against GOP incumbents in places like Rogers, Conway and west Little Rock.

But the state's Republicans, who have near-supermajorities in the Legislature, are looking to pad their recent wins in next year's elections.

In an interview last week at the GOP's newly renovated headquarters in Little Rock -- where President Donald Trump memorabilia is on display near a wall showing the Republican heads of each of the state's constitutional offices -- party Chairman Doyle Webb said he thinks there's still room to flip between three and five seats in the 2018 elections.

"The northeast has continued to be a very positive area for Republicans," Webb said. "We're looking at some [seats] that we do not hold in the northwest as well, Fayetteville seats ... and down in south Arkansas as well."

Another goal for Republicans, he said, would be to take control of a majority of county-level seats. Democrats still hold more than half of those offices.

As of Wednesday, two Republicans, Wade Andrews of Camden and Ricky Lattimore of McGehee, had announced plans to run for Democratic-held seats in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, Democrats have announced plans to challenge sitting Republicans in 20 state legislative races, as well as in each of Arkansas' four congressional districts.

State Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray, who also is a state representative from Augusta, said he is aiming to run candidates in every district race next year. He declined to say how many seats he believed the party could flip in 2018.

Those mulling over whether to run have less than two months to decide. The filing period for next year's partisan elections is Feb. 22 to March 1. Arkansas' primary and nonpartisan elections will be held on May 22 next year, followed by the general election on Nov. 6. Judicial candidates are nonpartisan.

Republicans control 76 of the 135 seats in the Arkansas Legislature, as well as the Governor's Mansion, and every partisan statewide and federal elected office. They picked up 11 legislative seats from Democrats in November 2016.

And then, after the general election, three Democrats in the House switched parties.

In the biggest Arkansas race of 2018, against Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Democratic candidate has yet to step forward with definitive plans. Rumors that U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., could soon leave his post to head the CIA and open up another statewide race spurred the Democratic Party to send out a fundraising email late Thursday.

With a year to go before the election, the number of competitive races is already an about-face from 2016, when Democrats were absent from all but one of the congressional races, and when more than three-quarters of the state legislative races featured only one major party candidate.

In 2018, all 100 House seats and the four U.S. House seats will be up for election. Eighteen state Senate seats will be available, but no U.S. Senate seat will be in contention unless a special election is called because Cotton has left office.

"I think the races will be more competitive, and there's every reason to believe [Democrats] might be able to win some of the more marginal races," said Hal Bass, the professor emeritus of political science at Ouachita Baptist University, noting that the party opposing the president usually does well in midterm elections.

Urban districts in Pulaski County and traditional Democratic strongholds in the Delta are areas where Democrats have the best chances to pick up seats, Bass said. Still, he said, Republicans have "momentum," and he did not rule out the chance that they could expand majorities in the Legislature if national trends fail to take hold among the state's voters.

Chase Dugger, a Republican political consultant whose clients include 42 current members of the Arkansas Legislature, also predicted that Pulaski County and the Delta will be competitive, pointing to seats in both areas that he hoped to make Republican.

One of those seats, House District 47, is held by Gray, the Democratic Party chairman.

The other, House District 42, is being vacated by Democratic state Rep. Bob Johnson of Jacksonville, who is running for mayor. Dugger said he's spoken with Republicans interested in running in both districts, but who are not ready to announce their decisions.

Republicans' fortunes, he said, rest in the popularity of the governor.

"I think this election cycle will be all about Gov. Hutchinson, and I think that will be very good for the party," Dugger said by telephone. (Dugger's list of clients does not include the governor.)

Gray, who was elected to lead the Democratic Party earlier this year, conceded that Hutchinson is well-liked by voters. But in legislative races, Gray doubted whether the governor's popularity would extend to conservatives who have tacked to the right of Hutchinson.

"If they're running with the governor's message, then they would have to be running in support of health care, Medicaid expansion," Gray said. "Many of them in the House and Senate right now ran against Medicaid expansion, they ran against the Affordable Care Act."

Both Webb and Gray said they expect state-level issues to be the focus of the 2018 campaigns. They also said candidates in both parties are increasingly stepping forward to run and not having to be persuaded to launch campaigns.

"I think we clearly run on our record," Webb said, pointing to recently enacted tax cuts, low unemployment rates and the governor's computer science education initiative. "We have nothing to run away from. It's a good record, that I think is very reflective of everyday tax-paying Arkansans."

For Democrats, a top issue in 2018 will be Republican efforts to expand charter schools and school voucher programs, which use public funds to send children to private schools, Gray said. No less than eight teachers have said they will seek elected office as Democrats in either the state Legislature or Congress next year.

Gray said he also expects Democrats to take up support for increased funding for roads, schools and other infrastructure.

SundayMonday on 12/03/2017