Tolbert: Primary Takeaways

by Jason Tolbert ([email protected]) 133 views 

Tuesday night, I enjoyed being a part of the Talk Business & Politics and KATV election night coverage.  I hope you tuned in for our three hours of live streams, one hour special news broadcast, and copious coverage on and our Twitter accounts.  If you missed it, you can get a flavor of it here.

Most of the night went as expected with both Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross winning by wide margins.  I will note that while Ross won his primary by 85% and Asa won his by 73% – both commending margins – Asa’s victory was against Coleman – a candidate who spent at least more than a half million dollars and had been running for over a year, while Bryant did little more than put her name on the ballot.

Here are some key takeaways for the primary.

1. Republicans Draw More Voters for the First Time in Modern History – The Republican primary drew in around 178,000 voters compared to around 150,000 for the Democrats.  You would have to dig out your Reconstruction history books to find this ever happening before in Arkansas.  Of course, part of this is due to the fact that Republicans had 5 statewide primaries and 2 Congressional primaries compared to only 1 statewide primary for the Democrats. But the fact is times are changing from when the Democratic primary usually selected the winner.  This is not to say Republicans are a lock for November by any means, but candidates are now competing to be the Republican nominee whereas a few years ago they often struggled to find a candidate.

2. “Establishment” Candidates generally did better than “Tea Party” Candidates – Although Arkansas did not see a marked split between Establishment (is there one?) candidates versus Tea Party candidates, there were some overtones.  In the big races, the establishment candidate won handily, such as Asa Hutchinson over Curtis Coleman and French Hill over Col. Conrad Reynolds.  But again, the split was not clear, with some Tea Party members supporting the establishment pick anyway.

3. Private Option Gets a Couple of Scalps – The biggest riff between the two groups – which overlap in many areas – was and is over support or opposition to the Private Option Medicaid expansion.  The biggest victory for the anti-PO crowd was Rep. Terry Rice’s defeat of incumbent Sen. Bruce Holland by double digits.  Rice was perhaps the best quality anti-PO candidate running last night.  Sen. Bill Sample and Missy Irvin (who has voted both ways) held their seats fairly easily against anti-PO challengers.  PO supporter Rep. John Burris in going to a runoff against anti-PO Scott Flippo whose campaign was backed by an anti-PO group called Conduit for Commerce.  Burris looks to have a good shot at the runoff with an overlapping runoff for Boone County Judge where Burris won 62% of the vote compared to 31% for Flippo.  The PO also picked off incumbent Rep. John Hutchison in northeast Arkansas, while an anti-PO incumbent Rep. Randy Alexander was defeated in northwest Arkansas.

4. Rutledge Finishes Strong in Attorney General’s Race – The Republican AG race is the only statewide runoff with Leslie Rutledge leading the night over David Sterling – 48% to 39%.  Based on returns I have seen, Rutledge really closed the gap with her final push in the last week of the campaign taking to the airwaves with a considerable media buy.  For example, in early voting in Saline County, Sterling led Rutledge 52% to 34%, but on Election Day Rutledge led Sterling 56% to 32%.  (Also, in Pulaski she won early vote 44% to 42% with a 84 vote margin but on election day voting, she won 62% to 26% with a 5,859 vote margin.) Runoffs are impossible to predict, but she surprised many last night including me and comes into the run-off with a lot of momentum.  A lot will depend on if American Future Fund will continue to spend enough to help Sterling.

5. Central Arkansas Increases Its Strength – Not too long ago, northwest Arkansas – particularly Benton County – had enough proportion of the vote to select the winner of the statewide primary.  This year, central Arkansas flexed its muscles a bit.  The ten biggest counties in the Republican Primary were Pulaski with about 21,200 (central), Benton with 17,700 (NWA), Saline with 14,600 (central), Washington with 11,500 (NWA), Sebastian with 10,100 (west), Garland with 9,700 (south central), Faulkner with 9,000 (central), White with 7,200 (central), Lonoke with 9,400 (central), and Pope with 6,100 (west central.)  You saw this dynamic with the State Treasurer’s race where Dennis Milligan won his home county of Saline and the adjacent county of Garland by a 6,000-vote margin making up most of his roughly 11,000-vote victory.  This is despite Baird winning his home county Benton County and the adjacent Washington County by more than 4,000 votes.

6. We Have Runoffs – It will be interesting to watch the run-off strategies, particularly in the statewide race for Attorney General.  Likely, they will hit the several counties with local run-offs hard as this is likely where the turnout will be.  Saline County could be ground central for Republicans with run-offs in the sheriff and county assessor race.  Around 14,500 voted in these races on Tuesday.  Garland County also has a Republican run-off for sheriff that drew about 9,500 votes on Tuesday.

The Burris-Flippo State Senate run-off will pull in voters in Boone, Baxter, and Marion Counties where almost 8,900 voted in that race.  There will  also be a Boone County Judge run-off. There are also Republican run-offs in the Pope County Circuit Clerk race and the Lonoke County Assessor race with about 6,000 voting in each of these counties on Tuesday.  Other than that, there are a couple of constable run-offs for Republicans in Polk and Columbia Counties.  The only Democratic run-offs are for State Representative in District 16 in Jefferson and Lincoln Counties between Ken Ferguson and Win Trafford; an Arkansas County Judge run-off; a Jackson County Circuit Clerk run-off; and a handful of Mayor, JP and constable run-offs.

Overall, the May primary was historic for Arkansas and could mark a continued shift to the Republican Party. But to do this, Republicans must now win in November.