NEA Political Animals co-chairs talk 2016 election cycle, hope to host Senate debate

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 176 views 

The 2016 general election may be 354 days from now, but the back and forth leading up to the general election could provide some interesting news, the co-chairs of the NEA Political Animals Club said Friday (Nov. 20).

Republican Andrea Allen and Democrat L.J. Bryant spoke to Talk Business and Politics about the Nov. 8, 2016 election as well as the March 1 primary. The election ballot in the state as well as Northeast Arkansas will be full as federal, state, county and judicial races will be decided.

Republicans had an historic 2014, winning a United States Senate race (Sen. Tom Cotton), all four U.S. House seats (Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman) as well as all seven constitutional offices. Republicans also have a 64-35, with one independent, majority in the state House as well as a 24-11 majority in the state Senate.

Allen and Bryant said the early talk on the races will provide an interesting test. Allen said a key bellwether in the GOP primaries in March will be in House District 63, where Rep. James Sturch, R-Batesville, faces a challenge from fellow Republican Phillip Finch of Batesville. She said the issues of Obamacare and the private option will be debated in that race.

Bryant said the issue that surprised him the most was the large number of party switchers, especially on the county level.

“It was interesting to see,” Bryant said of the switches, especially in Northeast Arkansas.

Another GOP race features two of the party switchers – former Rep. Wes Wagner, R-Manila and Poinsett County Assessor Johnny Rye – who will face off in House District 54 with the winner facing Democrat Hunter Williams of Blytheville.

Bryant said another race to watch is in House District 57, where Democrat Frankie Gillam will face the winner of the GOP primary – Jimmy Gazaway, Shawn D. Strouss and Ronnie Spence.

“Frankie is a strong candidate. “If anyone can do it, she can do it,” Bryant said of Gillam.

However, Allen said Greene County, which covers a large portion of the district, has trended Republican in recent years.

A race worth watching is also in House District 60, where Republican Fran Cavenaugh of Walnut Ridge is challenging Rep. James Ratliff, D-Imboden. Ratliff defeated Republican Blaine Davis by 50 votes, 4,001 to 3,951 (50.31 to 49.69%) during the 2014 campaign.

Allen and Bryant have family ties to Lawrence County. Allen said the county has been a bellwether for many years, with voters splitting their votes between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans have won county races in Lawrence County, but Bryant said Ratliff has remained personally popular in the county.

As for state Senate races, both said they were watching District 22, with Rep. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, facing incumbent Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola; and District 27, where Republican Trent Garner of El Dorado faces incumbent Sen. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan.

As for judicial races, Allen said she believes the Supreme Court race between Circuit Judge Shawn Womack of Mountain Home and attorney Clark Mason of Little Rock will be a good bellwether to watch due to judicial spending on races.

Before heading to the general election, the candidates have to first go through the March 1 primary. Topping the ballot in March will be the presidential primary, where 13 Republicans and six Democrats are running for their party’s nomination.

Bryant said Republican Donald Trump, who is on the ballot, is exceeding expectations in the country.

“I can’t believe Trump is holding the lead,” Bryant said.

Allen said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is also on the Republican ballot, has built a strong ground game in the state leading up to the primary. Another candidate to watch is Republican Ben Carson, both said. Bryant said Carson has raised money from “everyday folks” but has spent money to raise money for the nomination. Allen said Carson needs a stronger foreign policy background to match his domestic policy views.

There is also a U.S. Senate primary between incumbent U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Rogers and Curtis Coleman of North Little Rock. Allen said Coleman, who filed Nov. 10, has a campaign that is about the message while Boozman has served as a “reserved gentleman” in a sometimes hyper political climate.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Conner Eldridge and Libertarian Frank Gilbert next fall. Bryant said the question for Eldridge will be two-fold – first, can he raise money to be competitive and second, will the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee get involved in the race?

Allen and Bryant said NEA Political Animals are also looking to host the first general election debate between the winner of the GOP primary, Eldridge and Gilbert; as well as bringing presidential candidates to Northeast Arkansas next year.