The road for an expanded GOP majority or a resurgent Democratic minority in the state legislature will go through Northeast, South and Central Arkansas next fall, two longtime political experts said this week.
Talk Business and Politics recently asked Robert Coon with Impact Management Group and Hendrix College politics professor and Director of Civic Engagement Projects Jay Barth about the state of the 2016 state legislative races in Arkansas.
Republicans hold a 61-38, with one independent, majority in the state House and a 24-11 majority in the state Senate. In November 2016, there are a total of 32 races in the state House and five races in the state Senate for voters to decide.
While one said the chances of Democrats winning the majority in both houses next year are slim, the other said the races up for grabs will provide a test for the staying power of Republicans.
“There’s clearly no way that the Democrats can retake a majority in the state House. Indeed, there will likely be very little shift in either direction at the end of the day,” Barth said.
Coon said the political needle is moving into the direction of the GOP.
“Republicans have a genuine opportunity to expand their majority in 2016. Based on filing alone, we know that in the House, the GOP will maintain control of the chamber by virtue of 46 safe seats and 6 seats being contested only by a Libertarian candidate, which the GOP should win handily. With Republicans and Democrats vying for another 26 seats, it’s plausible that the GOP could increase its majority marginally,” Coon said.
Barth said he believes the candidacy of Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket could help Democrats in down ballot races.
“While a good deal depends on who the GOP nominee is, but, assuming that Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee, she likely will aid Democratic legislative candidates by a few points compared to the last few cycles. That said, a Clinton candidacy is certainly not a total game changer,” Barth said. “If there is any real assistance for the Democrats it will likely be in the 2nd district where one can imagine Clinton producing higher Democratic turnout.”
Coon said the last several cycles provide a roadmap for future success for the GOP.
“In the Senate, Republicans have the opportunity to pick up 2 seats, while defending only 1. If Republicans do end up growing their majorities it will be because they were able to further penetrate long-held Democratic areas in South Arkansas and Northeast Arkansas in particular, that only a few years ago would have been completely off the table. Both of those areas in recent elections have been key to the GOP growth in Arkansas at the state and congressional levels, and have aided the GOP in building a bench of future leaders at the local level, while dismantling much of the Democratic bench at the same time. Clearly races in those areas have to be high priorities for GOP leadership, and conversely make or break races for Democratic Party.”
As for competitive races, Coon said he was interested in three of the Senate races – District 22, with Republican Rep. Dave Wallace against Democratic incumbent Sen. David Burnett; District 27, with Republican Trent Garner and Democratic incumbent Sen. Bobby Pierce and District 34, where Rep. Donnie Copeland, R-North Little Rock and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock are running for the Republican nod to face Democrat Joe Woodson of North Little Rock.
Both said they are also watching several closely contested House races.
“In the House, I’m most interested in District 10 (Dorothy Hall vs. Rep. Mike Holcomb) mainly in light of Holcomb’s recent party switch to the GOP; District 57 – an open seat in Northeast Arkansas which will include 3 Republican and 1 Democratic candidates, another seat in Northeast Arkansas – District 61 (Representative Scott Baltz vs. Marsh Davis), and District 7 open seat which will have a Democratic primary and general election contest. In the last election cycle, Republicans were able to penetrate some traditionally strong Democratic areas of the state, and these House races in particular are a good barometer of just how far that trend can go,” Coon said.
Barth said the key for Democrats will involve winning battleground races around the state.
“In terms of the key races where Democrats are playing defense, they are predominantly places where incumbents are retiring (El Dorado, Paragould, and Hot Springs). Another tough race will be Camille Bennett’s seat where she is running for reelection,” Barth said. “The key targets for Democrats are places that were battlegrounds in 2014. They include the Arkadelphia seat of Richard Womack, the Jonesboro seat (Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro facing local Democratic attorney Nate Looney), the North Little Rock seat (District 38, where Democrats Victoria Leigh and Kent Walker are running to face Republican Carlton Wing, and the seat held by Mary Bentley (District 73, where Bentley will face Democrat Lesa Wolfe Cromwell of Dardanelle). These were all very close races in 2014 and Democrats hope that a Clinton candidacy can nudge Democrats over the hump. A final battleground will be the Mike Holcomb seat where he switched parties recently.”
However, before the November general election, there are a series of GOP primaries in the state Senate. Coon said he believes those races will bear some watching.
“For the GOP primaries, the races that most observers seem to be most interested in are at the State Senate level. In addition to District 34, there are two other GOP primary races – District 29 (Senator Eddie Joe Williams vs. Justice of the Peace RD Hopper) and District 7 (Representative Lance Eads vs. Sharon Lloyd),” Coon said. “The conservative outside group, Conduit for Action, appears to be backing candidates in all 3 of these races which, combined with the already combative nature of primaries, is likely to result in more than a few fireworks. Obviously incumbency has its advantages – grassroots/supporter infrastructure, legislative accomplishments, and of course fundraising – but it also comes with a documented voting record on a wide range of issues, which can in some cases be as much of a liability as an asset.”
Coon also said he believes Republicans will do well next fall based on the economy and President Obama’s low approval ratings in the state.
In addition to the presidential primary, a key race in the March 1 primary will be for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate. Coon said he believes U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is the frontrunner in next year’s Senate race with Democrat Conner Eldridge and Libertarian Frank Gilbert. However, Boozman must first face Republican Curtis Coleman in the March 1 primary.
“Of course, U.S. Senator John Boozman is also facing a primary challenger from Curtis Coleman. It appears that Coleman is still in search of relevancy but I, for one, don’t expect him to find any. After poor showings in the 2010 Senate race and 2014 Governor’s race, the only conclusion I can come up with for his repeated candidacies is that he likes to see his name in print,” Coon said.
As for the U.S. Senate race, Barth said there are still too many variables to decide at this point. Barth said while national Republicans are nervous about Boozman’s fundraising and campaign so far, Democrats are asking whether Eldridge will connect with Arkansans. All of the variables could very well decide if the Senate race is a top priority for both parties or is a down-ballot race, Barth said.
Another factor involves the number of ballot measures for voters to decide next fall, which typically draws voters to the polls, Barth said.
The primary is March 1, with early voting going from Feb. 15-29.