Arkansans will have plenty of options when they head to the polls in May and November, which means 2018 is already different from the most recent Natural State election cycles.
Six days of candidate filing ended Thursday and the final tally was 133 Republicans and 90 Democrats for partisan offices such as governor, the state Legislature and Congress -- and there will be more contested partisan offices than in any cycle since 2012.
Both major parties saw more candidates file with the secretary of state's office for state and federal races than in other recent years. (Candidates for county and municipal offices file locally.)
Libertarians, too, made a strong showing, filing for each of the state's constitutional offices and congressional seats, plus entering many legislative races.
The last time there were this many competitive state legislative races, in 2012, Republicans won many of their races and took control of both the state House and Senate.
Since that election, the number of contested races dropped in each of the past two cycles, as the GOP built its majorities in the Legislature and took control of all statewide and federal elected offices in Arkansas.
In 2016, when Arkansans voted overwhelmingly for Republican President Donald Trump, only a quarter of state House races were contested between the two major parties. In the state Senate, only three of 17 seats up for election were contested by Democrats and Republicans. Democrats fielded a single candidate in the four congressional races, and one U.S. Senate candidate. Neither won.
But there's more competition in 2018.
Based on an unofficial list of candidates released Friday by Secretary of State Mark Martin's office, 41 out of 100 House races will pit Republicans and Democrats, as will seven of 18 state Senate races.
Additionally, the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and land commissioner will have races between major party candidates. A pair of Libertarians are challenging the Republican incumbent treasurer and auditor.
Each of the four congressional districts are contested this year, and in central Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District, four Democrats will compete in a crowded primary to see who faces U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican from Little Rock, and Libertarian Joe Ryne Swafford in the fall.
Northwest Arkansas in particular saw a surge of Democratic candidates seeking to challenge incumbents in long-held Republican areas.
Will Watson, the 31-year-old vice chairman for candidate recruitment with the Washington County Democrats, said the party more than doubled the number of candidates in that county from two years ago, with many spurred by discontent with Trump's policies.
"The grass-roots energy we have right now is more than I've seen in 10 years," Watson said.
Republicans hold all but three of the legislative seats in Northwest Arkansas, which is rapidly growing in population around the university and major businesses like Walmart.
Doyle Webb, the state Republican Party chairman, said there is similarly "great excitement" among the GOP for its slate of candidates, as well as for the prospect of flipping county-level seats, the last area where the Democratic Party still has more officeholders. Webb pointed to county officials in Mississippi, Union and Columbia counties switching their party registration to Republican during the filing period.
"I believe when people look at our candidates and the Democrats' candidates, they will find our candidates reflect more of their values," Webb said.
Nationally, Democrats are looking at Trump's low approval ratings and the prospect of a "wave election" to regain power in closely divided states, said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. But Arkansas has become too much of a one-party state, Parry said, for Democrats to have much hope of sweeping into power in 2018.
The GOP holds 75 seats in the House to Democrats' 24, with one vacant seat. In the 35-member Senate, there are 23 Republicans and nine Democrats, with three vacancies.
"It's just too great a distance for them to jump," Parry said, before quickly noting the power that minority parties have in the state's budget process -- which requires a three-quarters vote to pass spending bills.
"You can bring Arkansas government to a halt with just 26 members of the House," Parry said.
Watson, the Democratic Party recruiter, said many first-time candidates are finding their footing for a campaign after getting involved in groups that focus on certain policy debates, such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, whose red shirts are a common sight at the state Capitol.
Other advocacy organizations such as the Women's March and those focused on immigration debates also have attracted candidates, he said.
Leaders for Educational Equity, a nonpartisan educational advocacy group, provided the initial support to Chintan Desai, who works for a charter school in Helena-West Helena, when he decided to run against four-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro.
Desai, who made his first run for office in an unsuccessful 2016 city council race, said the group helped him develop a website and his messaging when he announced his run in November. It was only later, Desai said, that he reached out to the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
Now, Desai, 29, is the first Democrat to run in Arkansas' 1st Congressional District in four years.
"Fundraising is not easy or fun work," Desai said in a phone call Friday. "But overall, it's optimism."
In the other corner of the state, Dawn Clemence, a Republican, is running for a Fayetteville-based state Senate seat that has not been contested by a GOP candidate since redistricting.
Clemence, 55, who said, "I've never run for anything," was still trying to wrap her head around what prompted her now to be a candidate when she spoke to a reporter Friday.
"When I look at the television and the media I don't see the people around me every day," Clemence said. "When I think about solutions, I don't see those people and their voice being heard."
Races between primary opponents, as well as nonpartisan judicial and prosecuting attorney candidates, will be May 22. The general election is Nov. 6.
Candidates who filed as independents will have until May 1 to submit petitions to qualify for the ballot. Write-in candidates must notify all counties in which they are running of their candidacy in order for votes for them to be counted.
SundayMonday on 03/04/2018
Print Headline: 2 parties' 223 candidates set for Arkansas contests