With 135 legislative seats technically up for grabs, Arkansas Republicans and Democrats are currently knee-deep in strategies that will determine likely control of the state House and Senate chambers in 2012.
You won’t see an overload of TV commercials or find your mailbox full of "vote for me" literature until this time next year, but today Democratic and GOP leaders are in heavy campaign mode… for candidates.
"While the campaigns themselves will clearly matter, the battle for control of each house of the state legislature will likely be decided in the next three months as prospective candidate make their decisions about whether or not to run," says Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College and a polling partner with Talk Business.
"Neither party has a great track record of recruiting candidates — the Democrats have never had to do it and the Republicans never have done it. But, if one of the two parties can develop an effective candidate recruitment strategy, they will be starkly advantaged in 2012," Barth said.
Demographic changes highlighted in the latest state Census data factored into the decennial redrawing of legislative lines. Democrats – who controlled the board drawing new districts – hope that they’ve created advantages for their candidates. Republicans seem optimistic that population shifts – despite the new boundaries – will give them added seats in their efforts to gain majorities.
Currently, Democrats have 54 House seats to the GOP’s 46 and 20 Senate seats to 15 for Republicans.
Still, it comes down to good candidates.
"I’m paying close attention to the recruitment battles all across the state," said Republican political strategist Clint Reed with Little Rock-based Impact Management Group. "Literally, races are being won and lost during this time. South Arkansas and northeast Arkansas will likely produce some of the biggest electoral battles."
Reed says those two regions of the state are areas where Democrats have long held a grip on local elections, but he sees that evolving in recent years and expects 2012 to continue the trend.
"Barack Obama’s candidacy will put seats in play for Republicans the likes that we’ve never seen. I predict you will see competitive races in those parts of Arkansas — areas that Democrats have never had to spend resources to defend," said Reed.
MAJORITY VS. MINORITY STATUS
While claiming the prize of control of one or both chambers of the Arkansas General Assembly is high on the list for state Republicans, if they’re successful, they still won’t be the majority party.
State law defines majority party status by who controls the majority of the seven state constitutional offices. Currently, Democrats hold four offices to the GOP’s three.
At one time, the status was dictated by who controlled the Governor’s seat, but when Republican Win Rockefeller swept into office in the late 1960′s, Democrats in the legislature altered the law to maintain their political dominance at the state and local level.
Majority status determines the make-up of local election committees, presently governed by two Democrats and one Republican on the three-member panels that oversee elections in all 75 counties. With constitutional offices not up for consideration until 2014, it will be one more election cycle before that epic battle is undertaken.
Still, for Democrats and Republicans, controlling the chambers of the legislature is important. Chamber control defines leadership roles and committee control – two areas that largely dictate state policy when lawmakers are in session.
NATIONAL VS. STATE ELECTIONS
While candidate recruitment may decide swing votes in the battle for state legislative control, messaging in those crucial races will have a decidedly different flavor depending on political persuasion.
For Republicans, the race will be nationalized with their candidates running not only against their Democratic opponents, but also President Obama, who consistently remains unpopular in Arkansas polls.
"2012 will be a national election. Democrats will try to make this cycle about specific successes at the state level under Mike Beebe’s leadership. On the other hand, Republicans will — or should — make the election about Barack Obama’s failed presidency," Reed said.
"While neither national party will target Arkansas specifically, when the average voter turns on the nightly news, the presidential campaign will always be a top story. Barack Obama versus the Republican candidate will become engrained into voters’ minds and drive ballot choices up and down the ballot," Reed added.
Barth agrees that Obama will loom large on the ballot for Arkansas Democrats, but he doesn’t see overwhelming popularity for either political party right now.
"The challenges created for the Democrats by having President Obama on the top of the ticket is real, particularly in those rural areas of the state where white voters predominate," Barth said. "But, actions by the Republican majority in the House in recent months creates challenges as well for that party as many of the votes were contrary to the populist tradition in Arkansas."
Editor’s note: Talk Business & Politics is developing potential candidate lists for the Arkansas House and Senate races. These lists are based on announcements as well as speculation from probable candidates exploring runs for legislative seats. You can review the Senate list here. Our House list will be released on Tuesday.