Collins to work toward increasing visitation to Arkansas by groups and promoting the state's appeal
To recap: Arkansas, once a one-party Democratic state with a few pockets of red, has now fully transformed to a one-party Republican state with the occasional spot of blue.
That was the lesson of the 2014 election, in which voters gave Republicans full control over the state legislature, the governorship, all other constitutional offices and the federal congressional delegation. The point was reinforced last week with the release of the 2015 Arkansas Poll, conducted annually by researchers at the University of Arkansas. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson enjoys a 63 percent approval rating among very likely voters. Half of those same voters said they would cast their ballots for the Republican presidential candidate if the 2016 election were held today, as compared to 31 percent who'd vote Democratic. As Bill Clinton put it during a speech in April, "Based on recent events, I don't know if I could win again down there."
That being said, although next year's ballot won't contain the makings of a Democratic renaissance, the slate for 2016 still includes a good deal of drama. Thanks to an unusually early primary date, Monday was the filing deadline for Arkansas candidates wishing to compete in 2016. Here are the races to watch next year:
Arkansas Supreme Court
When former Chief Justice Jim Hannah exited the court this fall for health reasons, Associate Justice Courtney Goodson announced her bid for the highest judgeship in the state. Though judicial elections are nonpartisan, the politically savvy Goodson has cultivated contacts first among well-connected Democrats and now (considering Arkansas's electoral realignment) with top Republicans. Her husband, John Goodson, is a wealthy class-action attorney, lobbyist and University of Arkansas trustee who has raised campaign funds for others on the Supreme Court. She'll face Mountain View Circuit Judge Dan Kemp, who declared his entry to the race late last week.
The retirement of Associate Justice Paul Danielson opens another seat on the Supreme Court, which Circuit Judge Shawn Womack of Mountain Home hopes to occupy. As a state senator, Womack memorably sponsored legislation attempting to make it illegal for gay people to adopt. He also championed tort reform, which may be why business groups including the PAC of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce recently held a fundraiser for his race. Womack attracted an opponent only minutes before Monday's filing deadline in Clark Mason, a Little Rock trial attorney. With a history of working with a nursing home patients' advocacy group, Mason's record presents a stark contrast to Womack's.
Republican John Boozman, the state's senior U.S. senator, is such a low-profile figure that a June poll found four in 10 Arkansans had no clear opinion on his performance, despite the fact he's been in Congress since 2001. Democratic hopeful Conner Eldridge, a former U.S. attorney for Arkansas's Western District, hopes he can turn that indifference to his favor. Eldridge, 37, is running as a centrist — he's anti-abortion, for example — and has connections to donors with deep pockets.Still, his chances are slim, by fact of affiliation with the party of Obama. Boozman also has a long-shot primary challenger in Curtis Coleman, a tea party-affiliated businessman who criticizes Boozman for voting to raise the federal debt ceiling.
U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock is the only one of Arkansas's four Republican congressmen to draw a Democratic opponent: Dianne Curry, a former member of the Little Rock School Board. Another Republican, Brock Olree of Searcy, has also filed. Hill is the overwhelming favorite.
GOP dominance of the statehouse won't be threatened in 2016: Out of 100 races in the House of Representatives, 52 will not include a Democratic candidate (22 have no Republican candidate, while 26 House races feature both an R and a D). There are 17 state Senate seats up for election this cycle, 10 of which lack a Democrat. The Democratic Party controls only about a third of either chamber, currently. However, every seat counts: The size of the minority party matters a great deal when it comes to the makeup of committees, which is where the real nuts and bolts of legislation are accomplished. (What follows is not a comprehensive list of races.)
Democrats are mounting credible challenges to a number of Republican incumbents. In House District 39, which includes a portion of North Little Rock and Maumelle, Republican Rep. Mark Lowery is being challenged by Democrat Bill Rahn, an attorney and owner of Snap Fitness of Central Arkansas. Lowery, a UCA professor, attracted unwanted attention earlier this year when his name turned up among hacked user data from Ashley Madison, the website for arranging extramarital affairs.Rep. Mike Holcomb of Pine Bluff switched parties to join the GOP in August and he'll now face Democrat Dorothy Hall of Sheridan. Hall, a farmer and retired Cooperative Extension Service administrator, narrowly lost to Holcomb in the 2014 Democratic primary. Democrat Susan Inman, a former state elections commissioner, takes on freshman Rep. Jim Sorvillo in West Little Rock's House District 32. GOP Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville is being challenged by Lesa Wolfe Crowell of Dardanelle, a parole officer and Army veteran. In Arkadelphia, hard-right Rep. Richard Womack is being challenged by Richard Bright, a Democratic JP.
But Democrats may be hard-pressed to simply keep the seats they hold currently, especially in rural districts. In Lonoke, freshman Democratic Rep. Camille Bennett is being challenged by Republican JP Roger Lynch; Bennett in 2015 emerged as a leading voice in the fight against HB 1228, the bill protecting discrimination against LGBT individuals. Sen. David Burnett, the conservative Osceola Democrat who broke party ranks to vote for allowing HB 1228 out of committee this spring, nonetheless faces a race against Republican Rep. Dave Wallace of Leachville, a first-term representative seeking to move to the Senate. A number of other longtime Democrats also face Republican opponents next year.
As Republican hegemony matures, primary challenges within the GOP will inevitably increase, and some of 2016's most interesting races pit R against R. In North Little Rock, Republican Sen. Jane English is being targeted by Republican Rep. Donnie Copeland, a race that will likely center on the private option. When English flipped her vote to a "yes" in the 2014 fiscal session, it kept the Medicaid expansion alive; Copeland is a staunch private option foe.Democrat Joe Woodson is also in that race. Rep. Jana Della Rosa of Rogers, an iconoclastic freshman Republican whose push for ethics reforms in 2015 upset some within her party, has two primary challengers: Jana Starr and Randy Alexander, a former state representative and tea party favorite. And in Springdale, the surprise decision of Sen. Jon Woods to forego re-election at the last minute has sparked a contest between Rep. Lance Eads (who currently represents a House district in Springdale) and Sharon Lloyd, a JP favored by the conservative activist group Conduit for Action.
A few other open seats have also drawn interesting matchups. Donnie Copeland's decision to run for the Senate frees up North Little Rock's House District 38. Republican Carlton Wing will face one of two Democrats vying in the primary, Victoria Leigh and Kent Walker. Arkansas has a notable deficit of Latino elected officials; Springdale's Irvin Camacho, running as a Democrat in House District 89, could change that. He'll be challenged by the winner of the Republican primary, either Charles Gaines and Jeff Williams. House District 81, which includes West Fork, is up for grabs after Republican Rep. Justin Harris decided against seeking a fourth term. Two Republican candidates have filed, Bruce Coleman and Derek Goodlin, and so has Susan McGaughey, a Democrat.
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