Late returns point to GOP advantage in legislative races

LITTLE ROCK — Republicans looked to seize control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction while Democrats tried to maintain more than a century of dominance in the general election Tuesday.

All 135 state legislative seats were up for election this year because of redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census and 63 seats were already decided, leaving 72 contested races Tuesday to determine legislative control.

With the secretary of state’s office reporting unofficial results from a partial list of contests, Republicans led in 10 Senate races and Democrats in seven. In House races at 11 p.m. Republicans led in 23 and Democrats 14. The secretary of state’s website had no results from several other races in both chambers.

State Democratic Chairman Will Bond remained optimistic as vote totals came in late Tuesday but acknowledged a statewide trend toward the GOP.

“We’re very proud of our candidates and the races they’ve run. Many of them have worked incredibly hard, along with folks across the state,” Bond said. “I think Arkansas has been a competitive two-party state for at least the last six to eight years. If you look at the numbers, there’s been some bounce back and forth over how many seats the Republicans have held. It’s a two-party system from now on in Arkansas, and we understand that.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, House Republican caucus leader, was already looking ahead to the implications of Republican control of the Legislature.

“We’ll be able to push a little bit more of our policies and bring our thoughts to the table with a little more behind them, hopefully,” Westerman said.

Sixty-two seats were decided in the May primary and another was decided Tuesday when Pulaski County Circuit Judge ordered election officials not to count general election votes for former Democratic Rep. Hudson Hallum of Marion who resigned during the summer after pleading guilty in a 2011 voter fraud case, leaving a Green Party challenger Fred Smith unopposed in Tuesday’s election.

With Democratic margins of 53-46 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate, Republicans needed to pick up just five House seats and three Senate seats to gain simple majorities in both chambers for the first time since the end of the Civil War. GOP candidates needed to win eight of 18 contested Senate seats and seven more of the 54 contested House races than Democrats.

Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who has enjoyed high approval ratings despite the rise of Republicans, said last week he was not sure which party would end up with the legislative majority but he predicted a nearly even split either way.

“Either way, it’s going to be close so they are going to have to work together,” the governor said.

Republicans counted on widespread instate antipathy for President Obama and a deluge of out-of-state cash from conservative groups to fuel a GOP takeover.

Democrats’ traditional tight legislative grip loosened considerably with significant Republican gains two years ago, and the slim majorities that remained appeared tenuous following a bruising general election in which GOP candidates focused on tying opponents to a Democrat in the White House who is widely unpopular in Arkansas.

They were helped by a cash infusion that could exceed $1 million out-of-state groups including Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch on behalf of GOP hopefuls that flooded the Natural State with mailers painted Democrats as furthering a liberal Obama agenda and made tax mongers out of incumbents — Republicans included — who supported referring a tax-hike-for-highways proposal to voters to decide.