An off-year election took place Tuesday (Oct. 8) in Jonesboro as voters headed to the polls to narrow their candidates to replace former Democratic State Senator Paul Bookout.

In August, Bookout resigned following sanctions from the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which found that he had used thousands of campaign funds for personal finances.  Special prosecutor Jack McQuary is currently considering if criminal charges will be brought.

On Tuesday, voters whittled down the list of candidates from seven to four. Three Republicans and four Democrats filed to fill the seat.  Since none of the candidates received a majority of the votes in Tuesday’s primary, the top two vote-getters will head to a special election run-off in five weeks on November 12.

The two winners of the runoff will face each other in the general election on January 14.

On the Republican side, the two top voter getters were neck and neck – John Cooper with 1,175 votes for 36% and Dan Sullivan with 1,172 for 36%.  Cooper ran the campaign as the Tea Party favorite earning support from several conservative groups that primarily focused on his opposition for the Arkansas Private Option Medicaid expansion. He will face second-place finisher Dan Sullivan who trailed narrowly by only 3 votes.  Notably, third place finisher Chad Niell (28%) spent the most – close to $90,000 through September – on his campaign, much of it from his own funds, but struggled after receiving a hefty fine on his prison commissary business during the primary campaign.

“Sue and I appreciate everyone who took the time to vote these past few days. I look forward to a good runoff race with Dan,” said Cooper this evening. “I have stood firm on my conservative principals and believe it will carry me through the next phase of the campaign.”

“I’m very pleased with our strong finish last night,” said Sullivan on Wednesday. “We went up against a candidate with far greater name recognition having previously run a race and we finished with a virtual tie. Our campaign has built momentum from the very start and I believe our message will continue to carry with the voters of Craighead County. I thank everyone who supported us and ask for their continued help throughout the runoff. While I have many friends in the community, politically I’m virtually unknown. The primary gave me a chance to present myself to the voters as a candidate. Over the next 5 weeks we will go one deeper and talk with voters more specifically about policy issues.”

On the Democratic side, former Valley View school superintendent Radius Baker led the night with 1,083 of 45% of the vote.  Businessman Steve Rockwell came in second with 956 or 40% to earn a chance to take on Baker in the runoff after spending the most funds of any Democrat – over $35,000 through September.  Former State Rep. Ray Kidd finished with 9% and former State Sen. Gene Roebuck earned 7% of the Democratic primary vote.

One key takeaway from the night is that first-time Republican primary voters with 3,250 outnumbered Democratic voters with 2,418 in Craighead County perhaps for the first time in history.  The swing to the GOP in northeast Arkansas could spell trouble for Democrats who have counted on strong showings in the First Congressional District to boost statewide numbers.  It remains to be seen if the strong showing in the primary will translate to a general election victory.

UPDATE – For what it is worth, third place finisher Chad Niell endorsed Sullivan today with some sharp words for Cooper.

“I appreciate everyone’s support and prayers during this very quick campaign. So proud of what everyone did. I now return to an extremely blessed life and will continue to support the conservative causes that I have always supported. I am extremely disappointed in the negative and false campaign of John Cooper and do not and cannot support a candidate that will mislead the public the way this man has done.. There is no place for dishonesty in our state senate. We cannot honor dishonesty. I have no choice but to ask my supporters to help Dan Sullivan become our next senator.”

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Jason Tolbert
Jason Tolbert is the moderator for his opinion blog, The Tolbert Report. He can be reached by e-mail at Jason@TolbertReport.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TolbertReport.