Eads unseats Rep. Alexander, Hodges wins District 96 primary; voter turnout low

by The City Wire staff (info@thecitywire.com) 26 views 

Legislative primary races decided in Northwest Arkansas legislative primaries were decided Tuesday (May 20). But it was not without at least some controversy, with the District 96 House race overshadowed in recent weeks by Republican Damon Wallace's educational background after it was reported that his bachelors degree was awarded by a degree mill eventually shut down by the feds.

One of the night's surprises was Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Springdale, losing his District 88 House seat to Lance Eads, by a margin of 58.19% to 41.81%.

Relatively little money was spent in that race, according to Democratic strategist Will Watson of Fayetteville-based Natural State Strategies, who said before the election that it was anybody's guess as to who would win, specifically calling out the District 88 race and questioning how well incumbency would work in a candidate's favor.

The race for House District 96 also saw controversy with Republican Damon Wallace's background called into question throughout the race, which he said could have contributed to his loss against Grant Hodges.

Hodges secured 68.56% of the vote against Wallace's 31.44%.

Wallace said "it was a series of negatives, not one," referring to questions raised about the authenticity of his bachelors degree from Lasalle University in Louisiana, which was shut down by the feds as a degree mill, though Wallace stated during the campaign that he completed correspondence work to earn his degree. He also referred to a debt to the Internal Revenue Service as the other negative that was raised early in the race.

For his part, Hodges said he "felt great" after seeing the results and said he was ready for the November general election.

Hodges said he feels that he would have won regardless of whether the information about his opponent had been released to the public.

"I would have won by being out there and talking to people. I could feel the momentum being with people and I could see it online, as well. But I think the results would have been the same."

As for his plans as he shifts to the general election, he said the game plan does not change.

"I think I keep doing what I'm doing. Obviously, tonight shows what I'm doing in this campaign works. Put in the blood, sweat and tears. Give it 100%. Hard work pays off. That's what I'll do from here to November."

Rice said late Tuesday that he was thrilled to have won the race to represent District 9 in the state senate, which includes parts of Crawford, Franklin, Scott and Sebastian Counties.

Rice secured 56.94% of the vote to Holland's 43.06%.

"I'm worn out and happy and appreciate the confidence the people put in me and I hope to earn all the confidence in the district," he said.

Asked how he was able to unseat Holland, a two-term senator from Greenwood, he said it was a combination of boots on the ground, direct mail and getting to know the voters.

"We had a lot of support and people working in different areas that believe in us. While we were known at least in the bottom half (of the district), we had to get introduced in Crawford County and Franklin County and parts of Sebastian, even."

As for what he expects to do once moves up to the Senate in January, Rice said he would be focused on the private option, one of topics most often discussed during the campaign.

"We've got to look at what the true costs are and what the federal government will pay and what the state's portion is going to pay. We'll continue to scrutinize that and look at it. We've got time before anything has to be done."

Rice said regardless of who voted for him or Holland, he was committed to earning each constituent's respect as he goes back to Little Rock next year.

"You have to prove yourself to them and why you can't… you won't ever be able to satisfy everyone on issues. In being able to work on the issues for constituents, you will earn their trust and the right to serve that. That's up to me to do. I think I've done that in my district the last six years and I'll continue to do that in the Senate."

Holland did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Republican Mat Pitsch can say the second time is charm in his fight to represent District 76 in the Arkansas House, having won Tuesday's primary against Republican Bobby Altes. Pitsch lost to Altes' father, Denny, in 2012.

Pitsch secured 53.31% of the vote to Altes' 46.69%.

The race was overshadowed in recent weeks by the release by left-leaning blogger Matt Campbell of documents that appeared to show Altes had been arrested on assault charges and had even encouraged one of his ex-wives to have an abortion.

Following publication of the article and supporting documentation, Altes said the allegations were not true, but it was not enough to save the election.

"Did it help? I'm not sure," Pitsch said. "But there were quite a few more voters this year than two years ago."

Pitsch called the situation sad before saying he had nothing to do with the release of the information.

Altes did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Overall, early voter turnout was lower across the state and the region when compared to the state's last mid-term election in 2010 (according to the total provided by the Secretary of State's office as of Monday morning).

In Crawford and Sebastian Counties, only 1,089 and 2,976 people, respectively early voted compared to 2010's totals of 1,798 and 4,520.

In Benton County, 5,256 people early voted compared to 8,031 in 2010. Washington County had 2,384 early voters this year compared with 3,301 in 2010.

Statewide, only 82,229 people had voted early compared to 114,052 in 2010.

According to Democratic strategist Will Watson of Fayetteville-based Natural State Strategies, the big difference this year was the lack of competitive races in both of the major party primaries versus 2010's draws of major primary battles in both the Democratic and Republican U.S. Senate races.

"In 2014, we don't have a big primary at the top of the ticket," he said. "The Republicans don't have a primary for Cotton and no seriously contested primary for Governor. Those are the races that really drive turnout. I don't see much turnout in those races," he said.

Another big driver in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas regions in 2010 was the open seat for Congress, which was eventually won by then-Rogers Mayor Steve Womack.

With this year's lack of super competitive races, Watson said the final numbers for the primary would likely mirror that of early voting — smaller turnout.

"Local races aren't really driving turnout. We have one house race and a county assessor (race) that is countywide (in Washington County). We just have that one state house race (Rep. Randy Alexander versus Lance Eads) and not a lot of money being spent on those races. There's not a lot of attention."

House District 88 (GOP Primary)
• Rep. Randy Alexander 41.81%
• Lance Eads 58.19%

House District 90 (GOP Primary)
• Paul Caldwell 34.99%
• Jana Della Rosa 53.26%
• Mike Whitmore 11.76%

House District 93 (GOP Primary)
• Rep. Jim Dotson 64.80%
• W.P. "Bill" Burckart 35.20%
(The winner of this race will face Democrat Leah Williams in the November general election)

House District 94 (GOP Primary)
• Rebecca Petty 54.47%
•Margaret Wolf 45.53%
(The winner of this race will face Democrat Grimsley Graham in the November general election)

House District 95 (GOP Primary)
• Rep. Sue Scott 54.88%
• Dane Zimmerman 45.12%
(The winner of this race will face Libertarian Eddie Moser in the November general election)

House District 96 (GOP Primary)
• Grant Hodges 68.56%
• Damon Wallace 31.44%
(The winner of this race will face Democrat Tom McClure and Libertarian Michael Kalagias in the November general election)

Senate District 9 (GOP Primary)
• Sen. Bruce Holland 43.06%
• Rep. Terry Rice 56.94%

House District 76 (GOP Primary)
• Bobby Altes 46.69%
• Mat Pitsch 53.31%