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Get used to state legislative races costing $200,000 or more, figures show

by Doug Thompson | May 22, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

The price of everything is going up -- including political campaigns in Northwest Arkansas.

The 12 counties in the northwest portion of the state have 23 contested party primaries on May 24, election records show. Three of those races attracted campaign contributions totaling $230,000 or more, state campaign finance records show.

The only one of those three races outside of Benton or Washington counties is a state Senate campaign with five candidates, making it the most contested legislative primary in the state.

Both Richard Bearden, a long-time Republican campaign adviser, and Michael Cook, the same for Democrats, gave the identical reason for why a state legislative race in the most populous cities in Benton and Washington counties now costs $200,000 or more: They're now major metropolitan centers by Arkansas standards. Campaigning in urbanized areas costs more, both said.

"In central Arkansas, $200,000 for a Senate race is very common and has been for a while," Bearden said. "We're seeing that ripple across the state now."

A metropolitan area, particularly an economically thriving one like Northwest Arkansas, simply has more people willing to contribute to local political campaigns, Cook said. Contributors in such areas usually have more money to give too, he said. This fuels more campaign spending.

"In a metropolitan area, you have to pay for advertising with the local cable TV provider," he said. "If your opponent pays for an attack ad you have to pay for another ad to respond to it."

Largely rural districts may not have as many campaigning options even if money is available.

Increasing polarization within political parties is another factor, Bearden said.

"We're seeing a real battle between the business community and the more conservative members of the Republican Party," Bearden said. Republican voters are more stringent on social issues than the business community, he said, leading to each group fielding and financially supporting different candidates.

The most expensive race

Sen. Bob Ballinger faces four rivals in his reelection bid in the Senate District 28 Republican primary: former state Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest; Rep. Keith Slape of Compton; Bob Largent, Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce president; and Theodore Walker of Huntsville, a U.S. Army veteran.

Their campaigns combined show contributions and loans of at least $291,856 by May 14, finance records show. Altogether, their campaigns spent at least $253,230 by that date.

King leads in both money taken in and spent, according to campaign records. His campaign took in $137,311 and spent slightly more than that, $137,489. Ballinger's campaign took in $82,375 and spent $58,157, giving his campaign far more cash on hand in the final days.

None of the other candidates for District 28 took in more than $50,000 or spent more than $40,000, according to the latest records available.

Candidate campaign reports tell only part of the story, King said in an interview Friday. Political action committees and independent groups are spending heavily in the race, he said. He is not getting the benefit, he said.

"If Bryan King is going to run for something, you'll know where the money is coming from," he said.

In all, King's campaign has taken out $120,151 in loans and received $17,160 in contributions. King loaned his campaign $40,000 on May 10, $50,000 on April 28, $7,651 on March 22 and $22,500 on Feb. 28, records show.

"If it's something I believe in, I just go do it," King said.

Ballinger's campaign took out no loans by May 14, records show.

"As soon as Bryan King got in it, I knew it was going to go from a $75,000 to a $100,000 race for me," Ballinger said Friday. Ballinger defeated King in King's 2018 reelection bid, so both men have a base of supporters in the district.

The biggest factor driving the campaign's cost up is the number of candidates, Ballinger said. Five entrants practically guarantees the added expense of a runoff, he said.

The District 28 race could go on past the May 24 primary day and into a June 21 runoff election if no candidate gets a majority of the vote in the primary. The winner will then face another campaign against Democrat Jim Wallace of Eureka Springs, an artist and owner of Paradise Pottery, in the Nov. 8 general election.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the runoff costs $50,000 in a month," Ballinger said.

Other races

The next most expensive races are the Republican state Senate contests in District 31 in northern Washington County and District 32 in eastern Benton County, state campaign finance records show. Candidates raised more than $235,000 for each of those races.

Two other Senate races, which are at least partially outside of the region's central corridor of downtown Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville, have campaigns totaling less than $135,000 per race.

The District 31 primary in Springdale and Tontitown has three candidates: Rep. Clint Penzo of Springdale, pastor Andrew Thompson of Springdale and former Tontitown Mayor Paul Colvin Jr. Those candidates between them raised or borrowed $245,265 by May 14 and spent a combined $186,567. The winner will face another campaign against Democrat Lisa Parks of Tontitown, an attorney, in the fall.

The District 31 race could also go into a runoff if no candidate gets a majority.

Thompson leads in both money raised and spent, taking in $99,213 and spending $85,383, records show. Penzo kept the most cash in hand for the last 10 days of the primary, though, raising $90,482 and spending $52,694. Colvin raised $55,570 and spent $48,490, records show.

Penzo's campaign has only $100 in loans. Thompson's has none. Colvin's records show he loaned his campaign $45,254 on March 7, the only loan funds shown. He also received $10,316 in contributions.

The most expensive race per candidate is the two-man Republican contest in District 32 between Rep. Joshua Bryant and businessman Jim Tull, both of Rogers, campaign finance reports show. The two contenders raised $235,635 between them by May 14, records show.

Tull leads in money raised with $140,957. Bryant amassed $94,668 for his race. Bryant spent $51,163 on his campaign by May 14 while Tull spent more than twice that at $122,177.

The primary winner in District 32 faces no opposition in the fall.

"As wild as those figures are, for a state senator campaign in that district, that's about right," Cook said.

Tull's campaign received a $72,152 loan from Simmons Bank on April 29, which followed a $10,150 loan from the same institution on March 15. Tull's personal loan of $850 to his campaign on March 21 brings the total borrowed by his campaign to $93,152, records show. The campaign also received $47,805 in contributions, records show.

Bryant loaned his campaign $25,000 on Jan. 31, the only loan shown in the candidate's records.

Jim Petty, state Senate candidate and Van Buren City Council member, was the top legislative candidate for donations. Petty garnered $141,905 for his Senate District 29 Republican Primary in Crawford and Washington counties. The campaign spent $136,183 in that time, records show.

This far outstrips rival Warren Robertson of Alma, whose campaign spent slightly more than it took in by May 14, records show: $25,583 taken in to $26,144 spent.

In House races, the only primary candidate in the 12-county area of Northwest Arkansas, including the Arkansas River Valley, to raise more than $100,000 is Rep. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, in District 47. His challenger, Wade Dunn, took in $88,439 and spent $73,919.

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