Fielding more candidates and having more contested primaries has the Arkansas GOP in new territory in modern history and experts argue if the trend could be short-lived or permanent as well as what the new dynamic may mean for the top of each political party’s ticket.
After filing period closed last week, Republicans fielded 132 candidates for state and federal offices, while Democrats field 88 contestants. That’s a dramatic turnaround from the last two cycles.
In 2012, 136 Democrats and 124 Republicans filed for those offices, while in 2010, Democrats dominated with 196 candidates for state and federal office and only 108 Republicans in the field.
Also in 2014, the Arkansas GOP will see more than four times as many contested primaries than Democrats. There will be 19 contested Republican primaries between all of the federal, statewide and legislative races on the ballot. Only four races will size up for Democratic primary challenges. Only one contest – the Democratic Governor’s race – will be a statewide election.
“We’ve done a 180 from the Arkansas John Brummett and I grew up in,” said Rex Nelson, president of the Political Animals Club of central Arkansas. Nelson is also former political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and former communications director for then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. “For decades, all the action was in the Democratic primary, the ole tantamount [to victory] … we’re seeing a transformation that I think is going to last for decades.”
“The issue is whether we’re having more Republican primaries simply because the Republican nomination is now the big thing to have. The Republican Party is the one that’s in charge, it’s vibrant. Or, is this a proliferation of specific battles over the private option,” said Brummett, a political columnist with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
THE PRIVATE OPTION POLITICS
Several Republican incumbents received primary challenges owing to their votes for the controversial private option health insurance program.
The private option, often referred to by opponents as an extension of Obamacare, takes federal Medicaid money and supplements private health insurance plans in an exchange to assist lower income workers. Votes in the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions ginned up competition in the Republican primaries for several supporters, and it has also matched up Democrats in the general election with Republican opponents.
Three Senate seats drew primary candidates for GOP incumbents – Sens. Bruce Holland, Missy Irvin and Bill Sample – who have voted for the private option in the past, while a fourth open Senate seat pits one of the plan’s chief architects – Republican Rep. John Burris – against two primary challengers.
In the House, three GOP incumbents face primary opponents. Two of them – Reps. Andy Davis and John Hutchison – previously voted for the private option, while one – Rep. Jim Dotson – did not.
PARTY SQUABBLES OR PARTY STRENGTH?
Does the higher level of primary participation work for or against Republicans in the 2014 election cycle?
Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College, said it could be an advantage for the GOP this fall.
“Generally, one party having a higher level of primary activity does indicate vibrancy for that party and a sense that the nomination is of particular value. That dynamic is clearly at work for the Arkansas GOP right now,” Barth said.
“That said, if the intra-party competition is grounded in factionalism, particularly ideological in origin, that can be a sign of some difficulty for the party moving forward,” he added. “There are clearly some signs of such GOP factionalism at present – on issues such as the private option – but we simply don¹t know how pronounced they are. If they are significant, there are certainly viable Democratic candidates in many of these races to take advantage of it.”
“To me, these primaries are foreshadowing the general election strengths and weaknesses for each political party,” says Clint Reed, a Republican strategist with Impact Management Group. “This simply shows that the natural political enthusiasm favors the GOP. This typically shows up in a general election GOTV [get out the vote] advantage for whichever party has this natural enthusiasm. This enthusiasm is being generated by the referendum on Barack Obama’s presidency.”
Greg Hale, a Democratic political consultant with The Markham Group, thinks the GOP party primaries are a sign of disunity, not enthusiasm.
“The Republican Party is divided – traditional Republican versus Tea Party – and they will be slugging it out at one another in the primary,” Hale said. “Meanwhile, Democrats are united and have a better sense of identity and are focused on winning in November.”
MIKE AND ASA
While there are primaries down ballot in statewide races on the GOP side as well as in two Congressional races – the Second and Fourth Districts – many eyes will be on the margin of victories for the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial front-runners.
Democrat Mike Ross received a surprise May 20 primary challenge from Lynette Bryant of Little Rock. Some political observers believe with only the Governor’s race and three House seats being drivers of Democratic primary turnout, voter participation among Democrats could be anemic.
Reed is convinced Ross will win solidly in May, but he is unsure about the momentum Ross will carry into the fall.
“I believe it’s relatively indifferent for Ross in the primary – for all intents and purposes he is the Democrat nominee for Governor,” Reed said. “He should win with 70-75% of vote. The real danger for Mike Ross is a passive Democrat electorate in the primary and that carries into the fall.”
Hale, whose firm has ties to the Mike Ross campaign, says primary night won’t affect Ross’ long-term plan one way or another. He said Ross has been focused on building a campaign infrastructure for the November general election.
“I think it’s been pretty clear to everyone that Mike Ross has had a long term strategy in place since he announced last April – especially in terms of fundraising, endorsements, messaging, branding and grassroots building. And, we’re already seeing the proof. Last summer, Ross was down by eight – now the latest polling has him up by three,” Hale said, noting that recent spending of nearly $1 million by the Republican Governors’ Association against Ross is indicative of his gains.
For months, Asa Hutchinson has known he’d be challenged for the Republican nomination Curtis Coleman of North Little Rock. A third challenger for the Republican Governor’s nomination, Rep. Debra Hobbs, pivoted to the Lt. Governor’s race during filing period.
Hale said that Hutchinson’s primary is likely to be more reflective of what he perceives as a power struggle in the GOP.
“Asa has a much tougher primary than Mike Ross. Asa has had trouble winning over his base from the beginning, and his refusal to take a position on the private option has hurt him even more with them, particularly with Tea Party voters. So, primary night should tell us just how unenthusiastic the Republican base is for Asa – that’s the race to watch,” said Hale.
Reed has a different take.
“The expectation is that Asa will win the primary. The real question for Asa, in my opinion, is how much money does he have to spend to meet the media’s expectation for victory,” said Reed. “It is much more important to reserve resources for the bruising battle ahead with Ross than try to meet an artificial victory percentage in the primary. So, the margin is less important for Asa than Ross.”
“The thing I will be watching in the primary is not how well each candidate does versus their opponent, but the overall voting numbers within each primary. That will be story,” he added.