LITTLE ROCK With control of the Legislature at stake in the general election in about five months, leaders of the Legislature and the Democratic and Republican parties are targeting particular races as pivotal, but they’re not saying exactly which ones they are.
There’s no shortage of districts in which one party or the other predicts victory, predictions that the opposing side sometimes finds laughable, and party leaders are still saying at this point that every race is important.
Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who was a senator for 20 years, said there are “three or four races where the Republicans think they can pick up [seats], and you got three or four races where the Democrats think they can pick up [seats in the Senate].”
Only Democrats and Republicans are in the Legislature. The Green and Libertarian parties field candidates, and some candidates run as independents, but usually only Democrats or Republicans win.
In the 35-member Senate, a majority is 18. Democrats outnumber Republicans there, 20-15. This fall there will be 16 districts in which Republicans and Democrats will face off.
In the 100-member House, a majority is 51. The Democrats’ margin there is 54-46. Democrats and Republicans will face off in 48 House districts this fall.
Beebe said there is “a reasonably good chance” that the Democrats will retain legislative majorities and “may even” expand their margin. “Just look at some of the Republican incumbents and where they are and who is running against them, particularly in the House.”
Two years ago, Republicans said that electing Democrats would advance the policies of President Barack Obama, who didn’t carry Arkansas in 2008 and continues to be unpopular in the state, according to polls. In 2010 the GOP won the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state and land commissioner, 15 seats in the state Senate, 44 in the state House, and four of the state’s six congressional seats. Those were the party’s greatest gains in more than a century.
Obama will be on the ballot again this year as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, and Republican leaders are echoing their themes from 2010. But this year, Democratic leaders are linking their candidates to Beebe, a generally popular governor who won each of the state’s 75 counties in 2010, and are saying that Republicans might bring about conflict and extremism.
State Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond of Little Rock said, “I don’t think Arkansans want to fill the Legislature up with far-right extremists that would put them against Gov. Beebe’s successful leadership,” adding that part of Beebe’s success is based on working with responsible Democrats in the majority in the House and Senate.
House Democratic leader Johnnie Roebuck of Arkadelphia said, “We are all Democrats, and we support the president, but this is not about Washington politics and this is doing what is best for Arkansas.”
GOP state chairman Doyle Webb of Benton said the Democratic Party “has drifted away from the views and values of everyday Arkansans” and supported implementation of Obama’s policies, such as the federal health-care overhaul.Arkansans want change in state government, Webb said.
“I think there is a lot of optimism on the Republican side,” said Hal Bass, a professor of political science at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. “I think President Obama is going to be a drag down-ballot at the head of the ticket.
“I think the Republicans have the winds at their back and the Democrats have the winds in their faces because of the national and regional [political] landscape,” he said.
Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, said he thinks that outside of Little Rock and the Delta, the Democrats running for state legislative seats “are going to do something of a dance when it comes to the president to show their independence from the national party” and “hope the presidential race is so boring in Arkansas that it never gets any traction.”
Republicans have a strong advantage because of Arkansans’ antipathy toward Obama, but that doesn’t guarantee anything in the November general election, said Senate Republican Whip Michael Lamoureux of Russellville.
He said Republicans won all seven contested open Senate seats in 2010, and he expects Republicans to be competitive in the seven contested Senate races this year. It’s easier when the opponent is not an incumbent, he said.
Though stopping short of predicting victory, Bond observed that Rep. Linda Tyler, D-Conway, is well positioned to win in Senate District 35 against Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, and Rep. Tiffany Rogers, D-Stuttgart, is in a good spot to win against Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, in District 28.
Particularly competitive, Bond said, are Senate District 9, where Democratic Rep. Tracy Pennartz of Fort Smith opposes GOP Sen. Bruce Holland of Greenwood, and the Senate District 15 race between former Democratic Rep. Johnny Hoyt of Morrilton and Republican Rep. David Sanders of Little Rock.
When asked about Bond’s remarks about those Senate races, Lamoureux said, “I don’t think Will really believes that.
“What else could he say but that?” Lamoureax said. “When you are party chairman you have to look for hope wherever you can.”
Among other state Senate races, Webb said he expects Rep. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, to defeat Sen. David Wyatt, D-Batesville, in District 19, and for Hot Springs Republican Alan Clark to oust Sen. Mike Fletcher, D-Hot Springs, in District 13.
Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, is leading Rep. Barry Hyde, D-North Little Rock, in polls, and Corning Republican Blake Johnson will defeat Senate Democratic leader Robert Thompson of Paragould, Webb said.
Thompson’s rejoinder: “I wouldn’t expect the chair of the Republican Party to say anything but that.”
He said Wyatt, a former county judge in Independence County, won’t lose.
Thompson also said he’s comfortable with the posture of Fletcher and his own campaign. He said he would be surprised if English is leading Hyde because Hyde is a longtime fixture in North Little Rock.
In other races, Webb said he believes Republicans will oust Democratic Reps. Butch Wilkins of Bono, James Ratliff of Imboden, Tommy Wren of Melbourne, James McLean of Batesville and Betty Overbey of Lamar.
Bond said Democrats are in a good position to retain their House incumbents and knock off GOP Rep. Loy Mauch of Bismarck with Malvern Democrat David Kizzia and Republican Rep. Jon Hubbard of Jonesboro with Jonesboro Democrat Harold Copenhaver.
“Hubbard has a long history of extremist views, and we don’t think he fits with what the folks of Craighead County want to send to the Legislature,” he said.
House Republican leader Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs replied: “I think we will let the folks from Craighead County decide that.” He said he attended a recent campaign event for Hubbard in Craighead County, “and it appeared he had a lot of support from Craighead County.”