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A blue wave in Arkansas? 

Dream on, Democrats.

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Nationally, the 2018 midterms hold promise for those hoping for a check on President Trump and congressional Republicans. Yes, the U.S. Senate is probably out of reach, but Democrats will very likely capture the House. (It should be a certainty, given that poll after poll shows American voters this cycle prefer a generic congressional Democrat by a margin of five to 10 points, but years of gerrymandering will help the GOP blunt that momentum somewhat.) Dems might also pick up control of governorships and legislative chambers in several states.

Arkansas won't be one of them. Recent polls show something like two-thirds of the state approves of Trump's job performance. In many places, the president is a millstone for Republican officeholders. Here, he's the wind beneath their wings.

Though Democrats are fielding strong candidates in all four of the state's congressional races, they're each trailing Republican incumbents by wide margins. The contest in the 2nd District is the closest, but U.S. Rep. French Hill remains well ahead of Democratic state Rep. Clarke Tucker. At the state level, Democrats running for governor and attorney general aren't anywhere near striking distance of their GOP opponents. And because downballot partisan races tend to follow trends at the top of the ticket, Democratic hopes of picking up a significant number of state legislative seats have faded away.

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Remember the bloodbath of 2014 and the shock of 2016. Take those low expectations and ratchet them down another notch or two. That's half our advice for Election Day 2018 in Arkansas.

The other half is this: Get out, vote and tell everyone you know to do the same. Keep working after Nov. 6, no matter what happens. One way in which Arkansas does mirror national trends is the level of enthusiasm and energy this cycle on the Democratic side: Despite long odds, the party is fielding remarkable candidates this year in district after district. Progressivism may be chronically frustrated in Arkansas, but it's far from dead.

Here's our roundup of the most interesting Arkansas races in 2018. Some are all but impossible for Democrats to win. In others, they have a fighting chance. Two nonpartisan contests, for Little Rock mayor and state Supreme Court justice, also bear close attention. (The biggest unknowns, however, are the three nonpartisan questions remaining on the ballot this year: voter ID, casino gambling and a big minimum wage hike.)

What follows isn't comprehensive. We've left off a number of worthy contenders. There's Democrat Mike Lee's challenge to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, whose kneejerk dedication to championing national Republican causes in federal court is an embarrassment to the state. There's Hayden Shamel, a Hot Springs teacher valiantly running against incumbent Rep. Bruce Westerman in the 4th Congressional District. We're also watching several statehouse races not mentioned here, including Democrat Monica Ball's bid to unseat Republican Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle in House District 39 and an open race between Democrat Andrew Collins and Republican Judith Goodson for HD 35, the legislative seat now occupied by Clarke Tucker.

2nd Congressional District
U.S. Rep. French Hill (R) vs. state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D)

If you care anything about state politics, you know the narrative of this race: This is Democrats' best chance to pick up a congressional seat in Arkansas since Republicans rode an anti-Obama wave in the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections to scoop up every federal and statewide office and control of the state legislature. Little Rock's Clarke Tucker is a dream candidate for Democrats, though to win he'll need the stars to align just right: an overwhelming victory in Pulaski, which two-term incumbent French Hill has never won, along with significant gains on the performance of Democratic candidates of the recent past in the district's much more conservative suburban and rural counties. Recent polls suggest he has a lot of ground to make up. The 37-year-old Tucker is a bladder cancer survivor, a fact he's made prominent in his campaign when highlighting Hill's vote to gut the Affordable Care Act. He's also a two-term state representative, who, despite being in the minority party, was able to pass substantive criminal justice legislation and contribute significantly to the legal language in a complicated legislative gambit that convinced hold-out senators to reauthorize Medicaid expansion. Tucker has been an adept fundraiser — he outraised Hill in the three-month period that ended Sept. 30, though Hill had a commanding advantage on overall campaign cash on hand at the end of September — and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has said it would spend $250,000 on ads supporting him.

Meanwhile, ex-banker Hill, also of Little Rock, has been a reliable supporter of President Trump's agenda in Congress, including voting for the deficit-exploding tax cut that largely benefits the wealthy. Not surprisingly, his wealth of campaign cash comes from Wall Street types, including a quarter of a million from Stephens Inc. sources. Prepare to be even more inundated with campaign commercials during the home stretch, including many straight from the Trump playbook that try to play off fear and racial stereotypes. None likely will be more offensive than an ad running on Central Arkansas radio stations that uses the recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh to suggest Hill would protect against white women making unfounded charges of rape against black men. One woman on the ad says white Democrats will bring back lynching. It comes from a North Carolina group; Hill has disavowed it.

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Steve Womack
  • U.S. Rep. Steve Womack

3rd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R) vs. Joshua Mahony (D)

Four-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Womack chairs the House Budget Committee, which has introduced a budget proposal for 2019 that calls for $537 billion in cuts to Medicare, $1.5 trillion in cuts to Medicaid and $4 billion in cuts to Social Security over 10 years to pay for President Trump's massive tax giveaway to the rich, which Womack, of course, supported. After Trump described Haiti and African nations as "shithole countries" earlier this year, Womack defended the president in an interview with a Northwest Arkansas TV station, saying, "if you're only appealing to people from countries that are behind the times, depraved countries, if that's the element you're appealing to ... we should make the same or a better appeal to people from other European countries that can come in here and actually fit into the society as we know it."

Mahony, an El Dorado native whose uncle was longtime state legislator Jodie Mahony, is part owner of a natural resources company and past president of the boards of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund and the Ozark Literacy Council. His wife, Rhianon DeLeeuw, is an executive at Walmart. Mahony is a quality candidate who has said all the right things, but he's almost certainly going to lose. A Democrat hasn't carried the district since 1967.

click to enlarge Joshua Mahony
  • Joshua Mahony

Still, Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College and a columnist for the Arkansas Times, notes that how much support Mahony can muster could be a gauge of whether the Democratic Party has a chance to make near-term inroads in Northwest Arkansas as it's long hoped. "If he gets to 40 percent [of the share of the vote], there would be the sense that things are starting to change [in Northwest Arkansas]," Barth said. There haven't been strong Democratic candidates in the 3rd District in recent election cycles, but there's some reason for Democrats to hope that they're gaining ground. Washington and Benton counties were among the only four counties in the state where Trump underperformed Mitt Romney's share of the vote in 2012 (the other two were Pulaski and Faulkner counties).

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Justice Courtney Goodson vs. David Sterling

This is a runoff election for Position 3 on the state's high court. Goodson has been on the Supreme Court since 2011; she lost an election for chief justice of the court to Dan Kemp in 2016. David Sterling, the chief counsel for the state Department of Human Services, lost a bid to be the Republican nominee for attorney general to Leslie Rutledge in 2014. The position is officially nonpartisan, but Sterling is making every effort to link his candidacy with the GOP. His social media accounts show him making a nearly unbroken series of appearances at Republican functions. In the general election, which was held in May, Goodson received 37 percent of the vote; Sterling got 34 percent. (The third candidate was state Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson.) Sterling would be a crucial court vote for Republicans. Justice Shawn Womack is a former Republican state senator and remains intensely political with frequent legislative lobbying through Republican colleagues. Justice Rhonda Wood has used former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee in robocalls for her political campaigns and also made the rounds of Republican county committee meetings to campaign. A Sterling win gives the court three transparently partisan justices.

click to enlarge Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson
  • Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson

Meanwhile, conservative dark money has poured into the race, all to the aid of Sterling. In the May general election, the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative political campaign organization, spent more than $900,000 attacking Goodson and Hixson. Another dark money group funded by business groups and tobacco companies has also spent six-figure sums.

That's led to a strange legal sideshow in this race: Goodson filed a lawsuit in the spring to block TV networks from airing one of JCN's ads she said was defamatory — a dubious argument, from a First Amendment perspective. Nonetheless, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza granted Goodson's request for a preliminary injunction, which prevented the ad from running in certain markets in the final days of the general election. An appeal of that decision is now before the state Supreme Court and five special justices appointed by Governor Hutchinson; Goodson and most of her colleagues recused.

Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and the director of the influential Arkansas Poll, points to research from Melinda Gann Hall, the author of "Attacking Judges: How Campaign Advertising Influences State Supreme Court Races." Hall suggests that attack ads are most influential in nonpartisan elections, Parry said, since voters don't have party labels to help them decide between candidates they otherwise know little or nothing about.

click to enlarge David Sterling
  • David Sterling

"In the absence of any information, people will use the information that's available. So that leaves an opening for an attack ad to be the only information that people have ... and when they do have an effect, they depress the vote share for the incumbent," Parry explained. She hastened to add that that was a general finding and the specifics of this race could yield a different outcome.

Governor
Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) vs. Jared Henderson (D)

Like the other constitutional officer races, the outcome of this one isn't in doubt. Hutchinson, who is seeking a second four-year term, is a fairly popular Republican governor in a Trump-loving state. His easy victory in the May primary over pro-gun activist Jan Morgan showed he maintains solid control over his base.

click to enlarge Governor Hutchinson - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Governor Hutchinson

Hutchinson's first term could have been much worse, as far as GOP governors go. Though a conservative, he occasionally moderated some of the crueler voices within his party on social issues and retained the expansion of Medicaid established by his predecessor, Mike Beebe. Lately, though, there's less to like. The Trump administration gave Hutchinson the green light to implement burdensome, arbitrary work requirements within that same Medicaid expansion program, Arkansas Works. He's also rolled out a host of Medicaid "reforms" that seem determined to whittle down services for beneficiaries and keep costs low.

click to enlarge Jared Henderson
  • Jared Henderson

Hutchinson wants to plow those savings into a new round of tax cuts in 2019, which will benefit the state's wealthiest residents.

Henderson, 40, has campaigned with remarkable energy for a longshot candidate and introduced policy plans for ethics reform, education and more. His resume shows the same work ethic: He grew up in Arkansas, earned two master's degrees at Harvard and worked as a research scientist at NASA. He's best known in the state for his work in public education, including several years as the director of Teach for America in Arkansas. This is his first run for office, but it seems unlikely to be his last.

Secretary of State Susan Inman (D) vs. state Land Commissioner John Thurston (R)

click to enlarge Susan Inman
  • Susan Inman

Don't sleep on this race between eminently qualified Susan Inman and John Thurston, whose sole strength is the "R" beside his name on the ballot. Under term-limited Secretary of State Mark Martin, Republicans have done everything they can to limit voting, much as they have around the country. But unlike many of his fellow Republican secretaries of state, Martin was quick to hand over sensitive voter information to President Trump's sham voter fraud commission, now defunct. The candidate that succeeds Martin will be responsible, along with the governor and attorney general, for redrawing state legislative districts following the 2020 Census, and he or she will be tasked with ensuring the security of our voting systems under the increasing threat of foreign interference.

Land Commissioner John Thurston
  • Land Commissioner John Thurston

Such was the strength of the Republican wave (i.e., antipathy toward President Obama) in Arkansas in 2010 that voters elected Thurston, a political novice and security and maintenance man for a West Little Rock church, as commissioner of state lands. Over the course of two terms, he seemed to distinguish himself among Republican constitutional officers by keeping his head down. But recently, Blue Hog Report's Matt Campbell revealed that Thurston had spent almost $30,000 on a boat equipped for bass fishing and used only six times in almost four years for its alleged purpose, searching for debris in Arkansas waterways. That's a job not given by statute or custom to land commissioner, which manages tax delinquent land sales.

Inman has been state director of elections under Secretary of State Sharon Priest and Pulaski County election director; she's also a past county and state election commissioner. She wants to see an independent commission take on legislative redistricting and backs a vote-by-mail plan, an idea enjoying success in other states. At a debate, Thurston said the U.S. Postal Service couldn't be trusted. Inman's response: The Postal Service handles military ballots. Is that untrustworthy, too? "He doesn't know much about elections," Inman commented. So true. And it's only the most important part of the job.

Little Rock Mayor
Baker Kurrus, Warwick Sabin, Frank Scott, et al.

click to enlarge Baker Kurrus - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Baker Kurrus

The politics in this nonpartisan race to replace outgoing Mayor Mark Stodola defy easy description. An early October poll by Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College showed the three leading candidates in an effective tie, with a third of voters still undecided. While Kurrus, Scott and Sabin have each developed distinct constituencies, it's likely that none will capture the percentage point threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Sabin, a Democratic state legislator representing Hillcrest, has a natural base among the city's many frustrated progressives, who will likely turn out in high numbers due to the hot congressional race in the 2nd District. He also polls well among younger voters. Scott, a banker and former state highway commissioner who grew up in Southwest Little Rock, is the leading African-American candidate. He's likely to capture much of the black vote while attracting some support from the larger business community.

The lack of a clear conservative candidate has created an opening for Kurrus, a corporate lawyer and businessman, to appeal to voters who tend to be older and whiter. He enjoys support among Republicans and independents. Yet he's also retained goodwill among some liberals because of his service as Little Rock School District superintendent and his outspoken position against charter school expansion.

click to enlarge Warwick Sabin
  • Warwick Sabin

There are two other contenders. Vincent Tolliver, a writer and progressive activist, says he's spearheading a "people's campaign" but has little campaign to speak of; Glen Schwarz, a perennial gadfly candidate, talks mostly about reforming marijuana laws and building roller coasters. Neither will win, but their presence could have a decisive impact. If Tolliver and Schwarz captured a few percentage points, that could help force the contest to a runoff.

Scott and Kurrus both emphasize a message of unity. Sabin speaks of bringing real change to the city. Regardless of who wins, though, the next mayor will have to navigate Little Rock's confusing hybrid system of governance, in which the mayor's executive authority overlaps with that of an appointed city manager and the geriatric city board of directors too often calls the shots. In other words, unity and change are both easier said than done.

click to enlarge Frank Scott - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Frank Scott

House District 84
State Rep. Charlie Collins (R) vs. Denise Garner (D)

click to enlarge State Rep. Charlie Collins - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • State Rep. Charlie Collins

For four terms, Charlie Collins has been among the most dogmatic legislators in the state House of Representatives. The two issues he goes on about endlessly — on Twitter, in the well of the House and in the press — are guns and taxes. Collins is the godfather of the legislation to put more guns on college campuses and in other public places, including courthouses and the Capitol. He's said his efforts will prevent mass shootings, despite ample evidence that guns on campus and in other sensitive places make us less safe. Collins is also a longtime champion of cutting taxes to benefit the wealthy, or "job creators." He's disparaged instituting an earned income tax credit in Arkansas, a method of rewarding work that's historically been embraced by both parties, as "welfare."

click to enlarge Denise Garner
  • Denise Garner

Denise Garner is a retired nurse practitioner, partner in several Fayetteville restaurants, philanthropist and nonprofit co-founder and board member. She lost a bid to state Rep. Michael John Gray (D-Augusta) to be chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas in 2017. She's been a fierce campaigner, hammering Collins for his positions on guns and taxes and also his support, through General Improvement Fund cash, of Ecclesia College, the private Christian "work college" that's been enmeshed in a kickback scandal involving two former legislators and the former president of the college.

This is the race to watch in the House. Each candidate had raised more than $100,000 as of September filings.

House District 32
State Rep. Jim Sorvillo (R) vs. Jess Mallett (D)

click to enlarge Jess Mallet
  • Jess Mallet

Jess Mallett, the managing partner of the Peter Miller Law Firm, is the latest in a string of excellent Democratic candidates to run for this West Little Rock seat. The last three — Barbara Graves in 2012, John Adams in 2014 and Susan Inman in 2016 — fell short. Will Mallett benefit from the storied "educated white women fleeing the party of Trump" bump? She's running on issues like raising public school teacher pay, fighting government corruption and requiring Arkansas companies to offer paid maternity leave. A Morrilton native, Mallett is the daughter of Bart Virden, longtime state Court of Appeals judge. Sorvillo has been a reliably conservative vote during his two terms but has done nothing to distinguish himself.

House District 41
State Rep. Karilyn Brown (R) vs. Jonathan Crossley (D)

click to enlarge Jonathan Crossley
  • Jonathan Crossley

Jonathan Crossley, 30, is a dream candidate for Democrats. A first-generation college graduate, he landed in the Palestine-Wheatley School District in East Arkansas through Teach for America. There, after four years, he increased the percentage of his students performing at the proficient level from 32 percent to 92 percent. He was named Arkansas Teacher of the Year in 2014. The following year, he became principal of Baseline Academy in the Little Rock School District, where he's getting rave reviews. He's running an energetic campaign in this compact, suburban district that includes parts of Sherwood, Jacksonville and North Little Rock. In her two terms in the legislator, Karilyn Brown has been mostly a nonentity. Lowlights include signing on to a kooky bill intended to curb fluoridation in water levels (paging General Ripper) and supporting a nutty proposal aimed at the nonexistent problem of Sharia law in the American court system.  

House District 93
State Rep. Jim Dotson (R) vs. Gayatri Agnew (D)

Rep. Jim Dotson
  • Rep. Jim Dotson

Is Bentonville truly becoming more cosmopolitan? Democrats have talked wistfully about making inroads here and elsewhere in growing Northwest Arkansas for years. Jim Dotson, who has represented the district since 2012, has been one of the legislature's most extreme members. He won his primary contest in May by fewer than 200 votes. Are voters growing weary of Dotson's record? He slopped up almost $40,000 in expenses charged to taxpayers in 2017 — the second-highest total — on top of his $39,500 base salary as a legislator. He also directed $13,500 from the state's General Improvement Fund to Ecclesia College, the tiny Bible college that's been at the center of a kickback scandal. (Dotson, who is an Ecclesia alumnus, has not been implicated in a crime.) His legislative record includes sponsoring patently unconstitutional bills, including one that requires all state contractors to pledge that they won't boycott Israel and another that mandated framed copies of the phrase "In God We Trust" to be displayed in every Arkansas public school classroom. He's also been one of the leaders in attacking public education, most recently sponsoring a bill that would have established education savings accounts that can be used to pay for private schools — i.e., a voucher bill by another name. It failed in the House.

click to enlarge Gayatri Agnew
  • Gayatri Agnew

Gayatri Agnew is a senior director of the Walmart Foundation, the charitable arm of the Bentonville retail behemoth. A mother of two toddlers, she earned headlines and praise early in her campaign for successfully petitioning the state Ethics Commission to allow her to count childcare as a qualified campaign reimbursement. She's running on nuts and bolts issues: infrastructure, economic diversification and schools. Leah Williams, Dotson's Democratic opponent in 2014, also had Walmart ties and appeared poised to give Dotson a good run. She failed to get 30 percent of the vote.

House District 22
Rep. Mickey Gates (R) vs. Kevin Rogers (D)

click to enlarge Rep. Mickey Gates
  • Rep. Mickey Gates

Here's a depressing headline we're afraid is going to be making the rounds on Nov. 7: "GOP legislator charged with multiple felonies wins re-election." Kevin Rogers, the Democratic challenger, is the owner of Kollective Coffee+Tea in downtown Hot Springs. He's running on protecting Medicaid expansion, reinvesting in public education and investing in renewable energy. His opponent, Republican incumbent Rep. Mickey Gates, was charged earlier this year with six Class D felonies after failing to file state income taxes for 15 years. He's said to owe almost $260,000. Despite the charges and Governor Hutchinson's call to resign, Gates has soldiered on with his campaign. In his two terms in the legislature, Gates has been a reliable supporter and promoter of extremism. In the last general session, he sponsored a bill that would have prevented individuals from changing the gender listed on their birth certificate. It was aimed at transgender people.

House District 11
Rep. Mark McElroy (I) vs. Don Glover (D) vs. Ricky Lattimore Sr. (R)

click to enlarge Don Glover
  • Don Glover

Three-term state Rep. Mark McElroy decided earlier this year he didn't want to be a Democrat anymore. He didn't like being told how to vote by the caucus, especially when he felt like the interests of the party and his district in Southeast Arkansas were at odds. He's also anti-abortion. But, "I'm too poor to be a Republican," he told columnist Steve Brawner, explaining that Republicans' policies cater to the 1 percent. Before he joined the House in 2012, he served as Desha County judge for two decades, so he's got plenty of name recognition. His Democratic opponent, Don Glover of Dermott, is a veteran of the Peace Corps and the U.S. Army. He's a retired Chicot County circuit judge. He's running on increasing development and programs in the district, including more after-school programs for children and workforce and technical training centers. He's also said providing "adequate services" to juveniles in the criminal justice system would be a priority. Republican Ricky Lattimore, of McGehee, is longtime pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church.

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