Fewer than half of Arkansas' legislative races in 2020 will be contested by both major parties, continuing a recent trend of Republican dominance statewide and Democratic wins in growing urban areas.
Arkansas' candidate filing period, which ended Tuesday, saw 202 candidates file for either the state House or the state Senate and another 13 candidates file for congressional offices (not including Democrat Josh Mahony, who filed for the U.S. Senate race, but then dropped out). Twenty-two candidates filed for president.
The number of 2020 candidates is fewer than in 2018, when constitutional offices like governor were on the ballot. Still, the number of legislative races that will be contested by both major parties, 47, is the same as last year.
Where candidates are running also portends shifting demographics and political alignments across the state.
For example, Democrats did not field a candidate this year for either of the rural House districts that flipped red last year, while Republicans will challenge one of the two House districts in Washington County that they lost to Democrats in 2018.
In total, the Republican Party fielded 103 candidates in 85 House races and 19 candidates in 16 Senate races.
By comparison, the Democratic Party fielded 58 candidates in 54 House races and 11 candidates in nine Senate races. Half of the races the party is contesting are in Pulaski County or Northwest Arkansas.
Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said independent voters in the suburbs "showing a willingness to move back and forth" on national politics were likely driving both parties' focus in 2020.
"To the extent that Arkansas has those suburban areas and those voters, you're seeing contests," Parry said.
In Pulaski County, Ashley Hudson became the latest Democrat to try to unseat three-term incumbent Republican state Rep. Jim Sorvillo in House District 32. The district, encompassing much of the west Little Rock suburbs, including Chenal Valley, by 2020 will be the only House district that has been contested by both parties in every election this decade.
Republicans have won every time.
"I'm not surprised by any means," Sorvillo said last week about having an opponent, then saying about Democrats in the state House, "my colleagues up there always have kind words for me."
Sorvillo said the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America had been active in recruiting candidates in the area. He said he planned to meet with a local chapter, calling background checks on gun purchases "reasonable."
"There's been legislation that's riled them up," Sorvillo said.
Hudson said that while she and her husband are gun owners and that she is friends with Moms Demand members, she was not recruited by the group. She said she supports some of the group's aims, such as passing universal background checks.
"The day after yet another school shooting, it's impossible to ignore the work that [Moms Demand is] doing," Hudson said, referring to Thursday's shooting at a Santa Clarita, Calif., high school that left two students and the gunman dead.
In Northwest Arkansas, Democrats are hoping to make inroads in the traditionally Republican region where they picked up two House seats in 2018.
Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, who narrowly edged out a Republican incumbent last year, will defend her seat against newcomer Jed Duggar, a 20-year-old member of the Duggar family, known from the TV show 19 Kids and Counting. Her colleague, Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, will not face a challenger after handily beating then-Rep. Charlie Collins last year.
Parry, the political science professor, said that nationally, women set records for the number of races they ran in and won last year. In Arkansas, the 26 women now serving in the 100-seat House is a record.
For the 2020 elections, the Democratic field is 41% women in state legislative races, while the Republican field is made up of 18% women.
Robert Coon, a Republican consultant and lobbyist, said that Democrats likely will try to tap into the activity among female voters, especially in urban areas, but that Republicans still hold a strategic advantage to keeping their large majorities in the state Legislature.
Republicans hold 26 seats and Democrats nine seats in the Senate. In the House, where there are two vacancies, Republicans hold 75 seats to the Democrats' 23. At the beginning of the decade, Democrats were the majority party in the Legislature.
"There seem to be more opportunities at the ballot boxes for Republican pickups than Democratic pickups," Coon said, pointing to several Democratic incumbents in rural south Arkansas who are facing GOP challengers.
One of those challengers, Republican Ben Gilmore, agreed, saying that voters in southeast Arkansas have long held conservative values of supporting tax cuts and opposing abortion, while electing Democrats to the state Legislature.
"What a lot of people thought was a largely blue region was due to the fact that they didn't have a choice," Gilmore said. "Republicans hadn't stepped up to run."
Gilmore is running against Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, who was unopposed in his last election and defeated a Republican candidate by 355 votes in 2012.
In an overlapping state House district, Rep. LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello, is facing her first challenger after two terms in the House. She said Democrats' "experience and leadership," in supporting policies such as GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson's highway plan and the state's private-option Medicaid expansion program would help keep rural voters in their camp.
"That's what Democrats have right now," Burch said.
The presidential ticket featuring Donald Trump and other federal races at the top of ballot likely will drive voter turnout and its subsequent effect on legislative races, politicians and experts said.
"You can't rule out the Trump factor in this race," said Gilmore.
In the only statewide partisan race next year, U.S. Sen Tom Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, has no Democratic opponent after Mahony dropped out just hours after the filing deadline, citing family health concerns. Democratic Party leaders have said they are looking at options to replace Mahony, though Republicans have promised to sue if they do.
All four of Arkansas' incumbent Republican members of the U.S. House filed for re-election, and three of them face opposition from Democrats.
Mahony's exit from the race and Republican strength in most of the state's congressional districts -- Democrats managed to get more than a third of the vote in just one, central Arkansas' 2nd District, in 2018 -- could place a drag on Democratic turnout, said Coon, the GOP consultant.
"Having a candidate on the ballot talking about the issues is helpful," Coon said. "You really just have a big gap between people voting for president and then your state legislative races."
The leader of the state Democratic Party, Chairman Michael John Gray, said the presidential race would be enough to drive turnout, with some additional support from state legislative and county office candidates.
"We're not concerned about turnout in a presidential year," Gray said.
Besides Republican and Democratic candidates, the number of third-party and independent candidate filings saw a decline from 2018, when Libertarians and independents filed for more than a dozen state legislative races, as well as for every statewide and federal race.
Only four Libertarians filed for legislative offices in 2020, along with seven independent candidates.
In the U.S. Senate race, Cotton will face Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington along with independent candidate Dan Whitfield. Three of the state's four congressional races also feature Libertarian or independent candidates.
The party primaries are March 3, as is the nonpartisan judicial general election. The top race is the Arkansas Supreme Court's Position 4, which has two candidates, Barbara Womack Webb and Pulaski County Circuit Judge Morgan "Chip" Welch. Webb is the wife of Doyle Webb, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, and works for the Workers' Compensation Commission.
The Arkansas Court of Appeals has four open positions, with two of them drawing two candidates each. In District 4, Position 2, Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Potter Barrett faces Emily White. Barrett has sued to keep White off the ballot by alleging violations of state election law.
In District 5, James McMenis challenges Court of Appeals Judge Mark Klappenbach.
Other races on the nonpartisan judicial ballot include elections for circuit judge, district judge and one prosecutor's race.
The general election for nonjudicial races and any judicial runoffs, if needed, are Nov. 3.
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