LITTLE ROCK The 2014 campaign for Arkansas’ top offices had already begun before voters cast their ballots in this year’s election. Now it’s about to go into full swing.
With an open governor’s race and Republicans eager to topple the state’s only Democratic senator, candidates from both parties are already laying the groundwork for statewide and federal campaigns that are nearly two years away.
After an election where they won control of the state Legislature for the first time in 138 years, Republicans say they’re hoping to build on that success with a sweep of the state’s seven constitutional offices and by unseating Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor — who will be the only Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation. The other top prize will be the governor’s office, with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe leaving office in 2015 due to term limits.
“Our enthusiasm level is so high that we had some candidates for 2014 calling us and wanting to meet with us before the election of 2012,” state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said. “We said let’s get through 2012 before we start looking at 2014.”
Still recovering from the setbacks in this year’s election, Democrats say they’ll begin recruiting candidates in earnest for state and congressional races next year.
“We still have a much deeper bench than the other side for a ton of races,” state Democratic Chairman Will Bond said.
The 2014 campaign was already under way last spring. Pryor, a two-term incumbent, announced in April that he would run for re-election. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, announced over the summer that he was running for governor and has already raised more than $1 million for his bid.
Both of those races are likely to get more crowded in the coming weeks.
Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson said he’s considering running for governor in 2014 and will likely announce a decision in January. Hutchinson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006, said it’s a faster schedule than he’d like but noted that McDaniel has had a head start with his bid.
“From my personal perspective that’s not what you want to do is to spend two years running for an office,” Hutchinson said. “It’s the nature of politics these days.”
Hutchinson’s candidacy could be the first of several on the GOP side. Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home and the incoming chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he’s considering a run but won’t decide until after next year’s session.
“The encouragement of others to seek that higher office has prodded me to at least give thought to it,” he said.
Curtis Coleman, the founder of a food safety company, said he’s contacting donors about a potential run for the Republican nomination and will make a decision sometime next year. Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr said he’s also considering a run and planned to commission a poll to see how much support he may have for the race.
“I seriously want the Republican, whoever that person is, to win the office,” Darr said. “If it’s not me, I just have to be convinced that person could win in the general election for me not to run.”
McDaniel is also likely to face a primary fight for the state’s top office. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is considering running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, as is businessman and Highway Commission member John Burkhalter. Neither has given a timeline on when they’d decide on a run.
Pryor’s re-election bid will likely be one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country, especially after the GOP succeeded in unseating Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln two years ago. Even though he’s already announced his re-election, Pryor said he’s trying to focus on his job more than the campaign.
“People need to catch their breath after this cycle,” Pryor told reporters on a recent conference call.
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, the Republican viewed by Democrats and many within his party as the most likely to challenge Pryor, said he’s focused on his job in Congress after winning re-election and is committed to securing a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Griffin is one of the potential candidates Republican party figures others are watching closely before making a decision about 2014. Darr has said he wants to see whether U.S. Rep. Steve Womack makes a bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination before making his own decision. A spokeswoman for Womack said the northwest Arkansas lawmaker is focusing on his job and not the next election.
Republicans are also closely watching U.S. Rep.-elect Tom Cotton, who has been mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office. Cotton said he’s focusing on his transition into Congress, but wouldn’t completely rule out a run for another office eventually.
The jockeying for 2014 races is trickling down to lower-ticket races. Democrats hold four of the seven constitutional offices, and Republicans say they believe they can sweep all of them in the election. Aside from the governor’s office, the attorney general and treasurer’s office will be open because of term limits preventing the incumbents from seeking re-election.
Rep. Darrin Williams of Little Rock, Sen. Robert Thompson of Paragould and University of Arkansas Community College at Hope Chancellor Chris Thomason say they’re considering running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, but insist a decision is a long ways away. Saline County Treasurer Dennis Milligan, former chairman of the state GOP, said he’s preparing for a likely run for the state treasurer’s office.
Secretary of State Mark Martin is planning on running for re-election, as is fellow Republican Land Commissioner John Thurston, their offices said.
State Auditor Charlie Daniels, a Democrat, said he hasn’t decided whether to run for re-election, and Republican Rep. Andrea Lea of Russellville said she’s looking at running for the office.
Democrat Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council and a member of the lottery commission, said he’s looking primarily at a potential run for lieutenant governor or secretary of state.