LITTLE ROCK — Today Arkansas voters will not only make their choice for president but also decide whether to keep the state Legislature in Democratic hands or transfer power to the Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction.
As of Monday evening, more than a quarter of the state’s 1,618,320 voters had already cast ballots.
The GOP made substantial gains in the 2010 election, winning three of four Congressional districts and the largest share of the Legislature since the period after the Civil War. In today’s election, they hope to turn the state solidly red.
Newcomer Tom Cotton of Dardanelle wants to become the first Republican to represent the 4th District in more than a decade and defeat Democrat state Sen. Gene Jeffress of Louann. Prescott Democrat Mike Ross holds the seat and isn’t seeking re-election.
“When they vote tomorrow they can be confident they are voting for a new generation of conservative leader,” Cotton said. “There seems to be a high amount of energy and excitement all around the district.”
The district includes the southern half of the state, long thought of as a Democratic stronghold.
Jeffress, whose campaign funding of less than $100,000 has been dwarfed by the $2 million Cotton raised, said he thinks people will be surprised by how many votes he receives.
“We’ve done everything we possibly could,” he said. “It’s time. Let’s do it. Voters are ready.”
Libertarian Bobby Tullis of Mineral Springs and Green Party candidate Joshua Drake are also on the ballot.
Arkansas set a new early-voting record this year. According to the secretary of state at least 439,262 people had voted as of Monday night - 41,697 more than in 2008.
Secretary of State Mark Martin estimated 65 percent of registered voters will cast a ballot in this election, about the same percentage as in the last presidential election.
More than 100 people stood in line through a light rain Monday morning while waiting to vote early at the Pulaski County Regional Building in downtown Little Rock.
Spencer May of Little Rock, a 43-year-old hairdresser, said he voted for President Barack Obama because “four years wasn’t enough to clean up the mess that [President George W.] Bush left.”
But Brian Banks of North Little Rock, a 37-year-old Wal-Mart call-center manager, said he voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“I’m very pro-business and against additional government, and the additional debt piled on during the past four years is more than Bush did in eight years,” he said.
Polls open at 7:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. County-by county results should be available tonight from the secretary of state at votenaturally.org and on the Arkansas Democrat Gazette website at arkansasonline.com/elections.
Democrats have urged voters to elect them and continue the progress they say the state has made under Gov. Mike Beebe. Republicans have striven to connect Democrats in the state with the national Democratic Party, and say it is time for new leaders after more than a century of single-party rule in the state Legislature.
In the 100-person House, a majority is 51. The Democrats hold 53 seats and Republicans have 46. In the 35 member Senate a majority is 18. The Democrats hold 20 seats and Republicans 15.
State Rep. Allen Kerr, a Little Rock Republican who stood outside the early voting site in Little Rock, said his challenge from former Little Rock City Director Barbara Graves, a Democrat, has been “a little tougher than I expected.”
“It’s just gotten nasty,” he said, citing mailers from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Graves. But he said he expects to survive Graves’ challenge.
But Graves said Kerr has benefited from mailers from Americans for Prosperity, the 60 Plus Association and the Arkansas Republican Party that “were a little over the top.”
“I know the [political] climate has changed,” she said, but she believes she’ll oust Kerr.
The heads of the state Republican and Democratic parties echoed the candidate’s complaints about negative advertisements.
“Our campaigns have focused on policy issues, those issues that are important to the people of Arkansas and have not sunk into personal attacks,” said Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb of Benton. He said the Democratic Party of Arkansas gave money to one of the outside groups attacking Republican candidates which is akin to “hiring a gunslinger to come in and do your dirty work.”
Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Will Bond of Little Rock said Democrats are being outspent at every turn.
He said Republican candidates can’t get elected without the support of Americans for Prosperity and similar groups, which are now “basically the titular heads of the Republican Party.”
The state Republican Party will hold an election-result watch party at 7 p.m. at the Embassy Suites in Little Rock.
The Democratic Party of Arkansas will hold a watch party at 6:30 p.m. at Cotham’s in the City in Little Rock.
In addition to the 4th Congressional District race, voters will determine whether to keep the Republicans who won the state’s three other U.S. House districts in 2010.
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, a former aide to Bush, became the second Republican to be elected to central Arkansas’ 2nd congressional district since Reconstruction. This year he faces Democratic candidate Herb Rule of Little Rock.
Rule said Monday that former President and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton endorsed him. Rule practiced law with future U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton’s wife, at the Rose Law Firm. Clinton didn’t endorse the Democratic candidates in the other congressional districts.
Libertarian Chris Hayes of Little Rock and Green Party candidate Barbara Ward of Little Rock are also on the ballot in the 2nd district.
In 2010, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro became the first Republican to represent the 1st District since Reconstruction.
Libertarian Jessica Paxton of Marion and Green Party candidate Jacob Holloway of Jonesboro also are seeking the 1st district seat.
In Northwest Arkansas’ 3rd District, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers has no Democratic opponent. Rebekah Kennedy of Fort Smith for the Green Party and Libertarian David Pangrac of Van Buren are also on the ballot.
The state ballot contains five referred issues, but the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered that votes cast for Issues 3 or 4, both of which would have legalized casino gambling in the state, not be counted.
The other proposals are:
Issue 1 to raise the state’s sales tax by a half percent to 6.5 percent for 10 years to raise more money to construct four-lane highways and roads.
Issue 2 to allow cities and counties to create development and redevelopment districts and fund projects within them. It would also authorize local governments to issue bonds to pay for the projects, and the increased sales tax revenue raised by the projects could be used to pay off the bond debt.
Issue 5 to legalize the medical use of marijuana and to create a system to register users and dispense marijuana.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 174 ballot initiatives will be considered in 44 states today.
Diamond Lewis of Little Rock, a 20-year-year-old junior studying marketing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said she voted for Issue 1 because she wants safe roads for driving her “baby cousins” around.
But David Owen of Jacksonville, a 53-year-old train driver, said he voted against Issue 1 because “I hate taxes,” and he doesn’t believe the temporary sales tax increase would end after 10 years.
Lewis said she voted against Issue 5 because she worried it would open the door for more marijuana use than just for medical purposes.
But Banks, the call-center manager, said he voted for Issue 5 “to help people with pain.”
If Issue 5 is approved by voters, Arkansas will be the first state in the south to legalize the medical use of marijuana.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is highly favored to win Arkansas’ six electoral votes tonight.
Obama hasn’t visited Arkansas during his presidency, and he didn’t campaign here in 2008. Romney attended a private campaign fundraiser in Little Rock in August.
In 2008, Obama lost Arkansas to Republican nominee John McCain after receiving 38.86 percent of the vote.
Also on the presidential ballot are Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and Socialism and Liberation Party nominee Peta Lindsay.