The race for the U.S. Senate is not the only big senate race happening in the Natural State and political observers are starting to take notice. The District 9 Senate Republican primary, which will pit incumbent Sen. Bruce Holland of Greenwood against Rep. Terry Rice of Waldron, will take place May 20 and already tens of thousands of dollars are pouring into the race.
Holland in his most recent campaign contribution and expenditure report reported raising $71,370 in his race, while loaning himself $10,048, since the campaign started. Of the more than $81,000 he has raised, he has already expended $37,769.
Rice, on the other hand, reported total loans of $50,000 and contributions of $13,774 to his campaign. His total expenditures have totaled $42,500.
Combined, the campaigns have brought in just more than $145,000 in contributions and loans while having spent more than $80,000. While the numbers may seem large, Director of Client Services Chip Paris of Williams/Crawford & Associates — a consultant who has worked on Republican campaigns — said they should come as no surprise.
"Really, there's nothing that stands out to me as an outlier or anything that would be off the mark," he said. "You've got some (evidence that) clearly they are setting themselves up for their campaign. They are paying their consultants. And in the case of Rice, he's already (paid) some dollars for billboard advertising."
Paris said such expenditures would be necessary in a large district which spans multiple counties, such as District 9 which spans Crawford, Franklin, Scott and Sebastian Counties. Getting the word out in those counties of who a candidate is requires money, he said.
"When you consider this geographic race, that makes sense. Inherently, outdoor boards are an expensive proposition. When you go out over four counties, that can eat up your budget quickly."
The amount of money raised, loaned and spent so far this year is less than the total of $250,000 raised between the three candidates in the 2012 race, which saw Holland defeat Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, in the primary and Green-endorsed Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, in the general election.
But President Jason Willett of FLW Consulting, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said with another seven weeks left in the run up to the May 20 primary, it is likely much more money will pour into the race. He compared it to the recent special election to fill a vacancy in Senate District 21 in the Jonesboro area.
"In that race between the Democrats and Republicans in the special election … they spent almost $600,000 here in Craighead County in the 2014 (special) election,” Willett said.
The winner of the Democratic primary, businessman Steve Rockwell, himself spent just shy of $250,000 to win the primary and lose the general election, according to filings with the Arkansas Secretary of State's office.
That kind of money, Willett said, could become the norm in races across the state, including the primary between Holland and Rice. He said in addition to the money raised and spent by the candidates themselves, outside groups are likely to start involving themselves in more and more races, including Americans for Prosperity, which spent untold sums in the 2012 election against incumbents last go around.
"It just shows that the free spending and high priced agenda politics has moved into Arkansas," Willett said.
The topic he said is likely to be the focus of any outside groups who decide to involve themselves in the District 9 race, as well as other Republican primaries across the state, is the Private Option, which uses money meant for funding Medicaid and instead purchases private insurance for qualified individuals. It was billed as Arkansas' alternative to fully implementing Obamacare in the state.
According to Willett, Holland's vote for the Private Option could become red meat to Rice, his supporters, and outside groups looking to syphon votes from Holland by pushing his vote to the forefront while at the same time highlighting Rice's no vote in the 2014 fiscal session of the General Assembly. Referring again to the District 21 race, he said opposition to the Private Option swayed voters.
"What gives Terry Rice the edge is voting against the Private Option, while Holland did not. I think you'll see that that plays a key role," he said. "Holland was the crucial vote for Obamacare (the Private Option), that's what the commercials (will say). I think with Rice, you saw politics play a role in his vote against the Private Option."
He pointed out that the District 9 race will essentially be a re-match of two consulting groups that were heavily involved in the District 21 race, Impact Management Group, which worked for anti-Private Option Republican John Cooper — who won the primary and went on to easily win the general election — and Diamond State Consulting, which represented Republican Chad Niell, who Willett referred to as "the more common sense Republican" who came in third place.
Impact is now representing Rice while Diamond State represented Holland in 2012, though campaign contribution and expenditure reports filed for 2014 do not make clear which consulting firm is representing Holland this year.
Paris said regardless of what other campaigns have looked like, including Holland's 2012 campaign or the recently concluded special election in District 21, those races themselves cannot be used as the only predictors for what the District 9 race will look like.
"Like we talked about earlier, each and every campaign I've ever worked on is completely unique," he said. "Anybody who tells you that there's a cookie cutter approach to it is misleading you. It's dependent on the personality you're dealing with, the race for the office, the geographic area and within each of those there are multiple things you can talk about. But what worked for one state representative may not work for another state representative. You have to take that into consideration when plotting your strategy."
And according to Paris, while there are only seven weeks left, a lot about this election will be unknown until it comes to the final few days and weeks. He said both sides will likely roll out TV ads, as well as direct mail pieces, which will require a lot of money to pour in.
"What you'll see getting close to that May 20 election, both sides will ratchet that up a bit (with ads, mailers and other strategies). There's also a strategy that when one candidate sees another candidate doing something, the other will want to do the same thing."