Primary season may define Legislative control

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 145 views 

Democrats have it and Republicans want it.

We're talking control of the Arkansas General Assembly.

In 2010 after a tidal wave of Republican gains, the Arkansas legislature was reshaped with the smallest margin of Democratic rule since Reconstruction.

House Democrats eventually outnumbered Republicans 54-46, while the State Senate conducted its business with a 20-15 Democratic advantage.

To win 5 seats in the House and just 3 in the Senate would give Republicans control of both chambers for the first time in modern political history. And after legislative redistricting drew new district boundaries, political performance is likely to be redefined.

"Both of the state's major political parties have declared that the battle of control of the legislature is their major priority," said Talk Business conservative political blogger Jason Tolbert of The Tolbert Report, who is also a CPA for a non-profit organization. "In addition to the traditional grassroots campaigning from the candidates, the state will likely see political parties and outside groups pour money in these state legislative races."

Tolbert's counterpart, Michael Cook of Cook's Outlook, agrees that big money will be spent on legislative races and he sees a financial advantage for Democrats early on.

"Tons of money will be spent this year as both parties fight to control the state legislature. Last cycle, Democrats were caught a bit flat-footed on legislative races, this cycle, however, they've been planning and raising significantly more money than their Republican counterparts," said Cook, who also consults Democratic and nonpartisan judicial candidates. "Moreover, for a large part of last year the Republican Party of Arkansas teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, which likely kept them from investing early in their grassroots efforts."

Still, pundits and party insiders on both sides of the aisle expect enough money to be injected into state legislative races that either side can influence the outcome.

This May's political primaries will dictate the chances of each political party to either keep or grab that control and the consequences are enormous.

"If Democrats hold the majority, the House will have it's first African-American Speaker and Democrats will continue their proven record of smart tax cuts and running an efficient state government," Cook said. "If Republicans take the majority, they'll likely push for tax cuts for Arkansas' wealthiest individuals and calls for reducing the size of government, but not offering any concrete suggestions on cuts. Regardless of which party controls the state legislature, the projected Medicaid shortfall will be a major issue everyone must work to solve."

Tolbert counters that party control could boil down to classic governing stereotypes: smaller government versus taxing-and-spending.

"The immediate impact of party control will likely be seen on how the state will deal with budgetary issues, such as the looming Medicaid shortfall. If Republicans win control, the emphasis will be on budget tightening and perhaps cuts to make up for the shortfall. If Democrats hold, some sort of tax increase or new revenue source will likely be their solution," said Tolbert.

"From a long term outlook, this election cycle offers Republicans the best chance to become the dominant party in the state.  For Democrats, this is the first time they have had to fight the tide of Republican victories seen in the state house of every neighboring state," Tolbert added.

There are 11 State Senate primaries — five on the GOP side and six on the Democratic side. In the House, there are 22 primaries with 14 in the Democratic column and 8 in the Republican column.

When the primary season concludes, 19 of the 35 Senate seats will be decided. Ten of those 19 decided seats will be in the Republican column, while 10 will be held by Democrats leaving 16 seats up for grabs.

One can do the math: of the remaining 16 seats, Republicans must pick up 8 and Democrats must win 9 to take or hold the majority.

In the House, there will be 47 contested seats between Republicans and Democrats after the primaries conclude.

For Democrats to maintain their majority, they must win 24 of those 47 general election races, while Republicans must win 25 to earn majority status.

In northwest and western Arkansas, there will be several GOP primaries that pit incumbent lawmakers versus one another thanks to redistricting and ambition.  A few newcomers will also liven up those Republican races. Then, there is the one big primary race in central Arkansas that pits Rep. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, versus Rep. Ed Garner, R-Maumelle, for the chance to challenge former State Rep. Johnny Hoyt, D-Morrilton.

Beyond that, nearly all of the Democratic primary contests are in south Arkansas ranging up to the West Memphis area where incumbent Sen. Jack Crumbly, D-Widener, faces a challenge from Rep. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis. That race centers on “race” — Crumbly is black, Ingram is white — and is in the middle of litigation challenging the ethnic make-up of the newly drawn Senate District lines. It may not be settled until close to Election Day on May 22.

With smaller districts, it is harder to key in on the most prominent races that will frame the Arkansas House landscape. However, there are some interesting dynamics to watch.

Some of the most crowded primaries involve African-American candidates running for open House seats. There are three contests with at least three black candidates running.

Two House primary races have four candidates each vying for the Democratic nomination, while the most crowded Republican primaries have no more than two nominees seeking the post.

The House primary garnering the most attention so far is one that might not even take place.

Rep. Hudson Hallum, D-Marion, won his House seat after former Rep. Fred Smith, D-Crawfordsville, vacated the position after a felony conviction. After allowing Smith to file on the pretense that his conviction was to be expunged, the Democratic Party of Arkansas is suing to have Smith nullified from the election after it was discovered that his legal standing may have been misrepresented, making him ineligible to be a candidate.