LITTLE ROCK — With control of the Legislature on the line, the state Democratic and Republican parties are targeting a number of races they believe are key to tipping the scales in the November general election.
Two years ago, Republicans won more seats in the House and Senate than they have held since Reconstruction, though the GOP wave left Democrats still holding slim majorities in both chambers. Republicans say they expect to win control of both chambers this year, while Democrats say they expect at least to maintain the majorities they have now, if not expand them.
Democrats now hold 53 of the 100 House seats and 20 of the 35 Senate seats. One House seat is vacant because of the recent resignation of Democrat Hudson Hallum of Marion.
Throwing an extra element of uncertainty into the mix is that the boundaries of all 135 districts were redrawn during the once-every-decade redistricting process last year, so even members seeking to return to the Legislature are not running in exactly the same districts they used to represent.
Among the Democrats targeted by Republicans for defeat is Sen. Steve Harrelson of Texarkana. A lawyer, Harrleson served three terms in the House before running for the Senate two years ago after term limits prevented him from seeking another House term.
Harrelson was one of the House’s most prominent members, serving as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee as well as majority leader.
His Republican challenger is William Hickey Jr. of Texarkana, a former banker and Texarkana School Board member who now runs a construction and rental property business.
“We believe that Hickey will do a great job. He’s a great local businessman down there, and we have focused a lot of resources in that race to assist,” said state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb.
Webb said the GOP believes Harrelson’s voting record, which includes a vote to raise the state tobacco tax in 2009, is “out of step with the people in his district.”
The 56 cents-per-pack tobacco tax hike was pushed by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe as a way to fund a statewide trauma network and other health programs. It passed with a three-fourths vote in both chambers of the Legislature.
State Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said Harrelson will retain his seat. He called Harrelson “an energizer” who worked to keep jobs at the Cooper Tire plant and create jobs at the $2 billion Turk coal-fired power plant under construction in the district.
Harrelson made headlines for an incident unrelated to his legislative work after he was involved in a fight in his home with his estranged wife’s boyfriend in May 2011. Police were called to the home but did not file any charges, and Harrelson went on to win a Democratic primary contest with Rep. Larry Cowling of Foreman in May of this year.
Another Democrat targeted by Republicans is Rep. Leslee Milam Post of Ozark. The freshman legislator, wife of Post Winery President Andrew Post, won her seat in 2010 after her Republican opponent was ruled ineligible.
Her Republican opponent in the current race is Bill Gossage of Ozark, assistant superintendent of the Ozark School District. Gossage has worked in education for 31 years.
“She’ll be overwhelmingly defeated,” Webb predicted. “The only reason that she won (in 2010) is that her opponent was struck from the ballot and his votes were not counted. So she has never won election by a majority of people in that district.”
Bond acknowledged Post is running in a Republican-leaning area but said she has “a great record” as a legislator, having helped pass “the largest tax cut in Arkansas history” and increased funding for public schools, among other things.
Observers say sitting Democratic Sen. David Wyatt of Batesville faces a tough challenge from Republican Rep. Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas.
Wyatt, Independence County judge for two decades, served two terms in the state House before first being elected to the Senate in 2008. Collins-Smith, who sells real estate, was elected to the House in 2010 as a Democrat but switched to the Republican party last year.
Collins-Smith is “a fierce campaigner,” said former state Sen. Paul Miller, D-Melbourne. “She will work hard.”
Miller said state and local issues are taking a back seat to President Obama in Collins-Smith’s campaign.
“I think you’ve got a lady who is going to use the anti-Obama plank,” he said. “That’s her plank, anti-the health care bill. Then you’ve got Sen. Wyatt who is going to somehow have to defend something he really doesn’t have anything to do with much. It’s a federal issue, mostly.”
Sitting Republicans whom Democrats have targeted include Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway, who is in a contest with Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway.
Rapert, owner of an investment firm and a first-term senator, drew criticism from Democrats in the 2011 session when he sponsored a resolution that proposed a constitutional convention for the purpose of amending the U.S. Constitution so that the debt ceiling could not be raised without approval of the states.
Tyler, owner of a frozen yogurt store and a second-term House member, drew criticism from Republicans during the same session when several bills that proposed restrictions on abortion were squelched in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, which she chaired.
Bond said Tyler has a strong record as a responsible legislator and businesswoman, while Rapert “has proved himself to be kind of on the extreme of the Republican Party.”
Rapert said Bond “should apologize for using that kind of inflammatory rhetoric.”
“The face of the matter is, when was the last time that a guy that wants to create new jobs, who is pro-life, who opens a business in Conway, invests in Conway, who has been endorsed by the NRA and stands up for traditional values, when has that been extreme in Arkansas?” Rapert said.
Webb said GOP polling shows that Rapert has “a commanding lead” in the district. He said Tyler’s record as chairman of the Public Health Committee has earned her a reputation as “one of the most liberal legislators in the Arkansas Legislature.”
Tyler said she really does have “a pretty conservative voting record.”
Democrats also have targeted Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, for defeat. Holland, a cattle rancher and first-term senator, is in a contest with Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, who owns a health care consulting firm and is term-limited in the House after serving three terms there.
“We think there’s a great contrast there between those two candidates,” Bond said. “Tracy has a great record as a lawmaker, of course. Bruce Holland has a record for having problems with the law and fleeing police.”
Holland pleaded no contest in February to charges of fleeing, careless driving and improper passing in connection with a January 2011 incident in which authorities said he led officers on a high-speed chase through Perry and Yell counties.
Webb said the fleeing incident will not be the issue that decides the race.
“I think people are interested in jobs and the economy and taxation,” he said.
Also drawing attention is a race between Searcy Police Chief Kyle Osborne, a Democrat, and first-term Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, who sells real estate and serves as policy committee chairman for the Republican House Caucus.
In May 2011, a woman reported to Little Rock police that she was the victim of a hit-and-run accident involving Biviano. Biviano said at the time that after the accident he exchanged insurance information with the woman and then left, thinking the matter had been taken care of. No charges were filed.
Neither Biviano nor Osborne returned calls seeking comment.
Former Democratic lawmaker John Paul Capps of Searcy, who served 18 terms in the state House, including one term as speaker, and four terms in the Senate, said the Biviano-Osborne race appears to be centered around taxes, with Biviano touting his signing of a no-tax pledge and Osborne arguing that taxes should not be eliminated as a possible tool.
“Usually the incumbent is favored, but I think this is going to be very close,” Capps said.
Although Beebe is not on the ballot, Democrats are invoking his name frequently on the campaign trail.
“Arkansans know that the state has done incredibly well under the leadership of Gov. Beebe, and I don’t think they want to pit Beebe against a Republican-held House and Senate,” Bond said. “We want to continue that progress.”
Republicans frequently mention Obama. Webb said Beebe’s refusal to fight the federal health care overhaul, steps taken by Beebe and the Legislature to implement a federally mandated health insurance exchange and Beebe’s support for expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law have made Obama and Obamacare legitimate state issues on which Republicans can campaign.