The Political Animals Club in Little Rock was kind enough to invite me to be on a panel last week related to 2014 elections. The lunch meeting at the Governor’s Mansion was sold out — likely a testament not to the popularity of my fellow panelists or me but interest in Arkansas elections still more than 15 months away.
Much of the discussion centered on the governor’s race and U.S. Senate race. But discussion on the state Legislature piqued my interest.
The governor’s race appears all but certain to be between two former congressmen — Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross. Ross has the money advantage after bringing in nearly $2 million in his recent filing while Hutchinson appears to have a slight advantage in the early preference polls.
Sen. Mark Pryor’s fight for re-election also will be a titan race with unheard of sums spent both on both sides. Republicans have a legitimate chance of regaining a majority in the U.S. Senate and Pryor’s seat could be the key. That means a flood of money from outside the state and a deluge of ads, most of them negative, flooding the airwaves. All indications are that freshman Republican Congressman Tom Cotton will jump in this race, probably later this summer.
Talk of state House and Senate races in 2014 centered on party majorities. Republicans hold a razor-thin margin of 51 of 100 House seats while the Senate has 21 Republicans to 14 Democrats. With only half the Senate seats up for election in 2014, the upper chamber is likely to stay Republican.
Left-leaning panel members argued that the Democratic Party has a good chance of reclaiming its majority in the Arkansas House. They pointed to Democrats controlling the 2010 redistricting process and tilting the map in their favor. In addition, they argued that Mike Ross would be a popular rallying figure for down-ballot candidates and he could be instrumental in putting together the best Democratic team.
The Republican-leaning pundits countered that the red tidal wave that sailed through Arkansas in the 2010 and 2012 has only grown. They countered that Republicans not only will hold their seats but will pick up new ones as voters continue to oppose the unpopular policies of President Obama, even though he is not on the ballot.
Both are compelling arguments that easily could be correct, but I think the answer lies in something simpler. The party that controls the Arkansas House will be the party that does the best job of recruiting candidates over the next six months.
Republicans have an opportunity to become the dominant majority party for the foreseeable future, but will do so only if local community leaders choose to run with an “R” instead of a “D” by their names. In times past, business owners, chamber of commerce members, and church leaders who leaned strong conservative often ran as Democrats because the Democratic Party traditionally had won in their areas.
The GOP majority will solidify when those conservative-leaning business leaders begin to file as Republicans. Once that shift happens, it will be difficult for Democrats to turn the trend back in their favor.
The Republican Party is still a young party in Arkansas that has experienced widespread success only in recent years. The 2014 elections could be a tipping point in either direction, particularly in those down-ballot races.
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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.