The path to victory for a statewide candidate in a Republican primary is said to go through Northwest Arkansas, specifically Benton County, and for good reason if you look at the numbers. But with the state turning increasingly red over the last few elections, some GOP strategists believe a new path is beginning to emerge.
“A lot of people like to classify the Republican party in Arkansas as just the Northwest Arkansas party,” said Clint Reed, a partner at Impact Management Group in Little Rock. “We’re certainly not that anymore.”
According to the numbers Reed provided, from 2004 to 2006, Northwest Arkansas – consisting of Benton, Washington, Sebastian and Crawford counties – represented nearly 40 percent of all Republican primary voters in the Natural State with Benton County leading the way each time. From 2008 to 2012, Northwest Arkansas, on average, represented about 32 percent of total primary votes.
“Obviously the dynamics are changing,” said Keith Emis, a partner at Diamond State Consulting in Little Rock. “In 2006, there were 50,000 voters total in the Republican primary that year, and I think you’ll see upwards of that in just the Fourth District alone next year in the congressional primary.”
Of those 50,000 votes in 2006, Northwest Arkansas represented a whopping 45%. But in the 2008 presidential primary, those numbers began to change. Of the roughly 185,000 Arkansas Republican primary votes cast in 2008, Northwest Arkansas accounted for 27%, a nearly 20% drop from 2006. Pulaski County topped Benton County, too, that year, with 25,000 votes to Benton County’s 21,000.
“I think that Arkansas, having become a majority Republican state, you are going to see an increase in Republican primary participation,” added Emis.
Crowded and competitive Republican primaries have always been a given in Northwest Arkansas, which hasn’t been the case across the rest of the state until recently.
“If you look at what’s happening in places like Lonoke County, Faulkner County, Saline County, Garland County – these places are hotbeds for conservatism,” said Reed. “There’s a central Arkansas base developing in the statewide primary that will one day rival northwest Arkansas,” said Emis. “It’s not quite there yet, but it will rival it.”
In 2004, Lonoke, Faulkner, Saline, and Garland counties represented about 13% of the GOP vote. In 2012, the four counties accounted for 20% of the total.
“The argument can be made, and has been made and I generally support it, that someone outside of Northwest Arkansas can win a primary statewide because the party has grown,” said Reed, who points to the continued increase in GOP voter turnout as key. “If you have more candidates on the ballot in primaries, and even down to the county level, it breeds turnout, which in turn, gives those statewide candidates the opportunity to pick up votes that they ordinarily wouldn’t have.”
From 2004 to 2006, voter turnout in statewide Republican primaries averaged 51,782. From 2008 to 2012, the average more than tripled to 157,180. And with the unprecedented success Arkansas Republicans have had as of late, it’s hard to believe those numbers will fall back below pre-2008 levels any time soon.
“To win Northwest Arkansas is still incredibly important in a primary,” said Emis. “It’s just not the only thing that matters like was true six years ago, eight years ago.”
GOP Statewide Candidates And Where They Reside:
Asa Hutchinson (Benton County)
Debra Hobbs (Benton County)
Curtis Coleman (Pulaski County)
Andy Mayberry (Grant County)
Charlie Collins (Washington County)
David Sterling (Pulaski County)
Leslie Rutledge (Pulaski County)
Secretary of State
Mark Martin (Washington County)
Duncan Baird (Benton County)
Dennis Milligan (Saline County)
Andrea Lea (Pope County)
Ken Yang (Saline County)
Commissioner of State Lands
John Thurston (Pulaski County)