Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Make no mistake: Arkansas is not in play this election cycle. Though Hillary Clinton now looks likely to trounce Donald Trump nationally, Arkansas remains one of the Republican nominee's safest strongholds. An Oct. 21 poll conducted by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College shows Trump leading Clinton in the state by a whopping 23 points. That's a slight rise from mid-September, which means Trump's popularity in Arkansas evidently wasn't dented by the emergence of a recorded 2005 conversation in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. (Update, 11/3/2016: The UA's highly regarded Arkansas Poll, the results of which were released on Nov. 2, also found a 23 point spread in favor of Trump.)
Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman enjoys an 18-point lead over Democratic challenger Conner Eldridge, and Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill looks almost certain to defeat Democrat Dianne Curry in the 2nd Congressional District. Arkansas's three other incumbent Republican congressmen are running unopposed. At the state level, the GOP is in such a strong position that both legislative chambers are guaranteed to remain in Republican control even if Democrats were to win every contested race.
It's no wonder Arkansas Democrats have had trouble finding candidates to run this cycle. The 2014 midterm was a demoralizing blowout, and 2016 may well advance Republican dominance even further. However, it may also contain surprises, with implications for both the 2017 legislative session and beyond. Nationally, Trump's candidacy is scrambling the GOP's traditional coalition by newly attracting a band of working-class, white, largely secular voters in unprecedented numbers while driving away equally unprecedented percentages of women, minorities and people with college degrees. It makes sense that Arkansas would be solid Trump country: We have a largely white state with low levels of educational attainment (under 30 percent of Arkansans have a postsecondary degree; nationally, the figure is around 40 percent) and a proven fondness for populists and iconoclasts.
But things may be different on a local level. Jay Barth, a professor of politics at Hendrix College and a regular columnist for the Arkansas Times, said Trump's presence at the top of the ticket could change the dynamics of certain legislative races in two diametrically opposed ways.
First, relatively affluent suburban areas with a higher percentage of college-educated voters could trend less Republican than in years past. "I think there still is an opening for Democrats in places with high percentages of highly educated voters who are probably not only disturbed by Trump but also arguably disturbed by some of this whole 'tea party 2.0' version of Republicanism," Barth said. "You know, it's not Asa Hutchinson's Republican Party. It's a different kind of Republicanism that they're not quite at home with, and I do think a palatable Democratic candidate may really be able to make inroads there. ... Trump is just getting demolished among highly educated people."
This isn't to say that most GOP-leaning voters who refuse to vote for Trump would automatically withhold support for down-ballot Republicans as well. But, a voter turned off by her party's presidential candidate is a voter more likely to stay home on Election Day, and legislative races can be decided on a few hundred ballots. Add in the turnout advantage enjoyed by Democrats on presidential election years, and that enthusiasm gap could make a real difference.
Barth pointed to three Pulaski County races that potentially fit this mold. In North Little Rock, attorney Victoria Leigh, a Democrat, and former sportscaster Carlton Wing, a Republican, are competing for House District 38, a seat left open after incumbent Donnie Copeland chose to mount an unsuccessful primary challenge against fellow Republican Sen. Jane English. In Maumelle's House District 39, incumbent Republican Mark Lowery is being challenged by Democrat Bill Rahn, a lawyer who owns Snap Fitness Gym. Lowery, a former instructor at the University of Central Arkansas*, carries some personal baggage as a candidate: His name turned up on a list of users of Ashley Madison, a website for people seeking extramarital affairs. (One other legislator, Democrat John Baine of El Dorado, also appeared on the list.) In House District 32 in West Little Rock, former state Election Commissioner Susan Inman, a Democrat, is challenging Republican incumbent Jim Sorvillo.
Better-educated voters' aversion to Trump could also penalize down-ballot Republicans in college towns, Barth said. Northeast Arkansas trended heavily Republican in 2014, but Democrat Nate Looney has a shot at unseating incumbent Republican Brandt Smith in Jonesboro's House District 58. In House District 18 in Arkadelphia, incumbent Republican Richard Womack, a contractor, has a strong Democratic challenger in Richard Bright, a justice of the peace and a lawyer. And while Democrats are still struggling to gain a foothold in Northwest Arkansas outside of Fayetteville, that region's higher percentage of better-educated voters might aid Democratic hopefuls Irvin Camacho in Springdale (who is facing Republican Jeff Williams for open House District 89 seat) and Grimsley Graham in Bentonville (who is challenging House District 94 incumbent Republican Rebecca Petty in a rematch of their 2014 race).
The second trend specific to this cycle, Barth said, is that Trump's strength among less-educated whites may accelerate Republicans' ongoing gains in rural, traditionally Democratic districts. He pointed to House District 10 in South Arkansas, which stretches between Monticello, Sheridan, Fordyce and Pine Bluff. Republican Rep. Mike Holcomb, a retired educator and county judge, was elected to the seat as a Democrat in 2012 — but despite winning re-election in 2014 with 58 percent of the vote, he switched parties in 2015. His Democratic challenger is Dorothy Hall, a farmer and retired associate director with the University of Arkansas's Cooperative Extension Service, who narrowly lost to Holcomb in the Democratic primary in 2012. Holcomb's campaign has been the subject of multiple ethics complaints regarding his campaign finance reporting.
"I think the Republican still wins that [race] no matter how damaged he is," Barth said. "It is classic Trump territory — you've got disempowered, mostly white voters with a low college-going rate. It is kind of the poster child for a very good Trump area."
In House District 73, incumbent Republican Mary Bentley of Perryville is another unusually weak candidate who could be boosted by Trump, Barth said. A small business owner, Bentley attracted unwanted attention last year when her husband was cited for baiting wildlife in the Ouachita National Forest; according to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officer who visited the family's home, Mary Bentley told him that he "need[ed] to be real careful, that times were tough and money was tight and [legislators] are looking for places to get money for funding and the Game and Fish Commission would be a good place to look." She's being challenged by Lesa Wolfe Crowell, a former parole officer and Army veteran of Dardanelle. Crowell is a strong candidate, Barth said, but her odds are long: "That's a good Trump area."
Incumbent Democrat Bobby Pierce is fending off a challenge from Republican Trent Garner in Senate District 27, a region that sprawls from Pine Bluff to El Dorado with demographics friendly to Trump. The genial Pierce is a classic old-school rural Democratic survivor — a contractor, small business owner and National Guard veteran, he's served in the legislature since 2007 — but he faces a well-funded opponent in Garner, who is a lawyer, a former Green Beret and a staffer for arch-conservative U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton.
"Pierce has been able to win for a long time. The question is whether he can pull it off again, even though the winds are blowing against him," Barth said.
If both of these patterns bear out, the result may be a wash. Democrats could pick up a few surprise seats in suburbs or college towns while further eroding in rural Arkansas. Even though Democrats can't win control of the legislature in 2017, it matters greatly how many seats they control, both in terms of securing crucial committee memberships and floor votes on controversial issues (such as reauthorizing Medicaid expansion).
On the other hand, Republicans may simply sweep everything, in a reprise of 2014. It's entirely possible that Trump's popularity will buoy down-ballot rural Republicans even while candidates in more Trump-skeptic districts remain insulated from his baggage. Janine Parry, a professor of politics at the University of Arkansas, said the more affluent voters of the suburbs are more likely to be self-identified Republicans (and therefore party loyalists) than the rural voters who gravitate toward Trump's message but have less abiding interest in the GOP as a "brand."
"In terms of those well-educated, habituated, suburban voters ... even if they feel squeamish about Trump, they know their brand is now the Republican brand. ... Even with Trump at the top of the ticket, I think it will be Republican down the line," Parry said. If that's the case, the first group of legislative races Barth identified may still skew solidly GOP.
Nonetheless, Parry predicted that Trump's margin of victory in Arkansas will be somewhat smaller than was Mitt Romney's in 2012. "I would just put a fun little prediction out there that that might be the thing that makes headlines among the chattering classes in Arkansas on Nov. 9. But that's only because it would be pretty hard to outperform the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 or 2012 [against Barack Obama]." Although Hillary Clinton isn't widely loved, Parry believes she'll perform somewhat better than the sitting president in parochial Arkansas.
"[Obama] was everything we couldn't recognize. He was urbane and unfamiliar. ... [But] Hillary Clinton is a familiar name. She's white. She has a long history in Arkansas. Sometimes, she says things that we recognize. So, in that sense, though she doesn't stand any chance here of winning, she could narrow the gap."
*This article has been corrected since its original publication. The original version stated Mark Lowery is a speech instructor at the University of Central Arkansas. Lowery has not worked at UCA since 2013.
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