Key legislative races across the state saw incumbent lawmakers in both parties hold onto House and Senate seats, and a small group of newcomers won races in Democratic and GOP strongholds.
In Northwest Arkansas, an Arkansas Senate race that pitted two longtime Republican heavyweight personalities against each other ended up with a longtime House member defeating the incumbent.
According to preliminary results from Secretary of State Mark Martin’s office, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Huntsville, defeated Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, in a hotly contested race that tested both candidates conservative bona fides, including questions about ongoing corruption investigations at the State Capitol, and raised concerns about each candidate’s voting records.
In the end, Ballinger won the seat for the sprawling Senate district that includes over 80,000 people and snakes from the Missouri stateline to Oklahoma by passing through parts of six different Northwest Arkansas counties. King was not available for comment late Tuesday night when election results were still unofficial, but Ballinger offered this statement to Talk Business & Politics on 4,346-3,896 vote victory.
“I am blessed by a big God and some good friends,” he said.
Earlier this year, Ballinger filed to run for the District 5 seat after it appeared King was not running again. However, on the first day of the 2018 filing period in late February, the incumbent King decided to seek re-election.
Ballinger, one of the more colorful and best-known members in the Arkansas House, represents District 97, which includes portions of Madison, Carroll and Washington counties. During the 91st General Assembly, Ballinger served as chair of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. He also serves on the House Judiciary Committee, Arkansas Legislative Council, and the Joint Committee on Energy.
A practicing attorney at his private firm in Berryville, Ballinger has built a strong conservative reputation by backing pro-life legislation that bans abortion after 20 weeks, prohibits the government from imposing a burden on free exercise of religion, and allowing concealed carry of guns at churches and colleges.
King, a farmer and owner of Triple K Farms in Green Forest, has served in the Arkansas Senate since being elected to the state’s upper chamber in 2012. He was also elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2006, where he served three consecutive terms.
Since announcing he was running for re-election, King has received staunch support from Conduit for Action, the Fayetteville-based political action group that pushes conservative-leaning policies such as small government, individual rights and less taxation. The group gave King its 2017 legislator of the year award for his sponsorship of Senate Bill 175, which would have required Medicaid providers and government officials to disclose conflicts of interests.
The Fayetteville PAC also brought attention to Ballinger’s ties to Ecclesia College in Springdale, which has been central to an ongoing federal investigation involving the disbursement of so-called general improvement funds, or GIF. Ballinger is among several lawmakers who directed GIF funds to the private college. The federal probe led to the recent conviction of former state Sen. Jon Woods and a guilty plea earlier last year by former state Rep. Micah Neal. Both are Republicans from Springdale.
During his term representing Senate District 5, which is comprised of Madison County and portions of Carroll, Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Sebastian and Washington counties, King also served as the chairman of the Legislative Joint Auditing Medicaid Subcommittee and was known for his support of Voter ID legislation, government transparency and the Second Amendment.
In another key Republican district, GOP candidate Breanne Davis easily won a special election against Democratic challenger Teresa Gallegos for the Senate District 16 seat that was vacated after the death of the late Sen. Greg Standridge of Russellville.
According to preliminary results from the Secretary of State’s office, Davis captured 75.03% of the vote (7,267) compared to 24.97% (2,418) for Gallegos. The Russellville resident will now assume the seat of the former Republican senator who died on Nov. 16 after a long bout with cancer. She will serve in the Senate for the remainder of Sen. Standridge’s term, which expires in January 2021.
Earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled a special election for the seat on Feb. 13, followed by a runoff election on March 13. In that hotly-contested race, Davis defeated Robert (Bob) Bailey for the Republican nomination in a contest that attracted hundreds of thousands of PAC-funded dollars to the expansive district that includes Newton and Pope counties and parts of Boone, Carroll and Van Buren counties.
Davis eventually defeated Bailey by a 4,264-3,451 margin (55-45%) in that special election before having to pivot to run against Gallegos. A Russellville resident and community activist, Gallegos was the lone Democrat to run for the Senate in the strong Republican district.
Key legislative races for the Democratic Party in central Arkansas saw incumbents holding on to their seats heading into the 2019 regular session, and a Little Rock teacher won a key race in a liberal stronghold to replace Little Rock mayoral candidate Rep. Warwick Sabin.
According to preliminary results for the Senate District 30 and House 36 races, Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Linda Chesterfield and Rep. Charles Blake, both of Little Rock, won their respective primary races. No Republican challengers registered to run in the November election.
On the other side of the city in the House District 33, another Democratic stronghold, political newcomer Tippi McCullough, defeated challenger Ross Noland, who was also running for office for the first time. McCullough, a former Little Rock Central High School teacher, is among the wave of Democratic women in Arkansas and across the nation who have entered political races for the first time.
In Chesterfield’s race, the elder Democratic stateswoman at the Arkansas General Assembly was leading challenger and Little Rock businessman James Andre Pendleton by a vote of 3,648 or 67.95% compared to 1,721 or 32.05%, unofficial results show.
Chesterfield has served in the Senate since 2010 and will be limited from running again for the position because of term limits. She has also served in the Arkansas House where she was first elected to the District 36 seat in 2002 and served three terms. That seat is now held by Rep. Charles Blake, who was first elected to the legislature in 2013 and is now serving his second term in the Arkansas House.
Preliminary results from the Secretary of State’s office show Blake defeated Darrell Stephens by a count of 1,660 votes or 61.85%, compared to 1,024 or 38.15%. Like Chesterfield’s Senate seat, no Republican candidates registered for the urban district that includes a major portion of Pulaski County. The same is also true for McCullough, a member of the State Committee of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, where she was appointed as a member of the Party’s Affirmative Action Committee and Executive Committee.