This morning Talk Business released our poll showing a generic statewide advantage for Republicans in state legislative races. The Republican candidate is preferred by 49 percent of those polled while the Democratic candidate is preferred by 36 percent.
It is remarkable to see a 13-point overall generic advantage for Republicans in these races for perhaps the first time in Arkansas history. But as we know, candidates don’t run generically, so each race needs to be examined on a district-by-district level.
In the State Senate, Democrats currently hold the majority with 20 seats, while Republicans have 15 seats. In 2010, Republicans won every race where they fielded a candidate, but only around half the seats had an election as senators serve four-year staggering terms.
This year all 35 seats are up due to redistricting. Without third party and independent candidates, Democrats are unopposed in 9 districts and Republicans are unopposed in 10 districts with 16 districts having a contested election.
From the internal polls and historical trending data I have seen from these races, it appears to me that Republicans are poised to win at least 20 seats with a chance to pick up as many as 25 seats if this year ends up being another “tidal wave” election as was the case in 2010.
Although admittedly anything can still happen in the next 40 days, there are three districts that look solid for Republicans – District 7 for Republican Rep. Jon Woods over Democratic challenger Diana Gonzales Worthen, District 9 for Republican Sen. Bruce Holland over Democratic Rep. Tracy Pennartz, and District 18 for Republican Sen. Missy Irvin over Democratic challenger Zac White.
There is one district for Democrats where Sen. David Johnson is likely to survive a challenge from Republican JP Jim Sorvillo in District 32.
In addition, three seats are strongly leaning Republican – District 15 for Rep. David Sanders over Johnny Hoyt, District 34 for Rep. Jane English over Rep. Barry Hyde, and District 37 for Sen. Jonathan Dismang over Rep. Tiffany Rogers (see update.)
This puts the Republicans at 16 seats and Democrats at 10 seats – leaving 9 seats in play that will determine which party controls the senate and the Republicans stand a good chance of winning most of them.
1. Sen. Jason Rapert (R) v. Rep. Linda Tyler (D) – District 35 – Conway area – Leans Republican - This is perhaps the highest profile most competitive race in the central Arkansas area. The district was drawn with Tyler in mind and seeks to pull in as many Democratic-leaning boxes as possible to make a competitive district in a Republican trending area. However, GOP internals have Rapert ahead and he also enjoys a nearly two-to-one cash advantage based on the most recent financial reports.
2. Jimmy Hickey (R) v. Sen. Steve Harrelson (D) – District 11 – Texarkana area – Leans Republican – Like Conway, the Texarkana area is trending Republican with Miller County one of only four counties Congressman Mike Ross lost in 2010. The race has heated up with mailers hitting Harrelson for being one of only two House members to vote against a bill that would have protected military funerals from protests – a charge that has upset Harrelson who would be quick to point out he voted for a different version in 2011.
3. Henry Frisby (R) v. Bobby Pierce (D) – District 27 – El Dorado, Camden, and rural surrounding areas – Leans Republican – As seen in our latest poll, the Fourth Congressional District is increasingly trending Republican particularly in rural districts such as this that have historically voted Democrat. Pierce also has somewhat of a geographic challenge as well coming from a small part of Grant County that is in the northern part of this district away from most of the population while Frisby is from El Dorado. This one leans toward Frisby but is a slight lean.
4. Rep. Linda Collins-Smith (R) v. Sen. David Wyatt (D) – District 19 – Batesville and rural surrounding areas – Leans Republican – Consistently voting conservative, Collins-Smith switched parties last year as she said the Democratic Party had left her. She is now the Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic Sen. Wyatt. Much like District 27, this one is seeing the signs of the reddening of rural Arkansas. Unless Wyatt finds a way to overcome this, look for Collins-Smith to take this one.
5. Rep. Gary Stubblefield (R) v. John Paul Wells (D) – District 6 – Booneville, Clarksville – Toss-up – This is a new district drawn in the River Valley area of western Arkansas with Wells in mind. Wells lost to Sen. Holland in 2010 by 20 points and has been planning his comeback ever since. Like District 35, it was drawn to be competitive, but Stubblefield should do well and should get a boost from turn out in the Congressional race as Republican candidate Tom Cotton lives in this district.
6. Blake Johnson (R) v. Sen. Robert Thompson (D) – District 20 – Paragould, Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge – Toss-up – Congressman Rick Crawford performed well here in 2010 and likely will again which will boost Johnson’s chances of upsetting well-known incumbent Sen. Thompson.
7. Alan Clark (R) v. Sen. Mike Fletcher (D) – District 13 – Hot Springs, Malvern, Benton, Bauxite – Toss-up – Fletcher is the incumbent but the district has changed its shape quite a bit after redistricting and extends out of Garland County deep into Saline County where neither candidate is well-known. Fletcher will have to overcome a generic Republican advantage and likely considerable spending from conservative groups. One important note here - Libertarian candidate and Mayor of Tull Frank Gilbert will pull some votes primarily from Clark in the Tull area which could make a difference in this close of a race.
8. Ronald Caldwell (R) v Rep. Jerry Brown (D) – District 23 – Wynne, Brinkley – Toss-up – Caldwell replaced Tommy Caubble who died suddenly this summer. Both Caldwell and Brown are from Wynne and both are very well-known. This one could be one of the closest races in the state.
9. Mike Akin (R) v. Eddie Cheatham (D) – District 26 – Monticello, Warren, rural SE corner of Arkansas – Lean Democrat – Akin is a top Republican candidate in an area where Democrats have traditionally enjoyed an advantage although Republicans have made significant progress to even compete in this part of the state. This one will come down to a turn-out battle.
By my assessment, this puts 20 seats safe to leaning Republican, 11 seats safe to leaning Democrat, with 4 toss-up seats.
Where am I right? Where am I wrong? Weigh in on the comment section below.
UPDATE – I still say Sen. Dismang will beat Rep. Rogers but some polling numbers shared with me tonight show the race tighter than I thought. I would put this one in a lean Republican category. Stubblefield is also likely lean Republican.