Despite Arkansas’ decision giving apparent majorities to the Republican Party in both houses of the state Legislature, Northeast Arkansas’ delegations remained solidly Democratic. Although outside special interest groups, including Americans for Prosperity and the 50 Plus Association, poured money into the state to prop up a number of Republican candidates, all but one of those candidates lost.
That one, though, will give the Republicans 51 seats and a clear majority in the 100-seat House of Representatives. According to unofficial election-night returns, Republican John Hutchison of Harrisburg edged Democrat L.J. Bryant of Grubbs by 44 votes in District 52, which covers parts of Poinsett, Craighead and Independence counties. The numbers could be changed by some provisional and military ballots still outstanding, and Bryant has asked for a recount.
If that result should change, the Republicans would be left with 50 seats and the Democrats with 49. But Fred Smith of Crawfordsville, a former Democratic state representative, ran as a Green Party candidate and won after the incumbent, Hudson Hallom of West Memphis, fell to election fraud charges. Smith could caucus with the Democrats, leaving a tie on many votes of importance.
A change in the District 52 result is not likely because most of the voting took place on machines, rather than paper ballots, and therefore can’t be recounted in the same way.
Nevertheless, Hutchison would be NEA’s only Republican legislator, which means the party would have suffered a net loss in the 2012 election of one House seat.
That’s because two Democrats defeated incumbent representatives, both of whom were seeking a second term, and an open Senate seat went to a Democrat.
One of the incumbents losing was the controversial Jon Hubbard in District 58, which is the heart of Jonesboro. He was unseated by political novice Harold Copenhaver in a high-profile campaign.
Hubbard and two other GOP candidates, Rep. Loy Mauch of Bismarck and former Rep. Charlie Fuqua of Batesville, drew statewide criticism for their writings and comments on such topics as slavery, immigration and imprisonment of disobedient children. Republicans even cut off campaign funding to them, and all three lost.
In the end, Hubbard might have been forgiven his obsession with illegal immigrants, which dominated most of his proposed legislation (all unsuccessful), but what may have beaten him was his lack of attention to a critical District 58 constituency — Arkansas State University. At least three times he voted against bills that included funding for ASU, and one other time he was the lone legislator who didn’t vote for an ASU bill (he voted present instead).
A representative, after all, is supposed to represent the interests of his community, and ASU is the crown jewel of Northeast Arkansas. Its community is a strong and consistent voting force.
The other GOP incumbent losing a House race was Lori Benedict of Sturkie, who fell 306 votes short of Pocahontas Fire Chief Scott Baltz, a conservative Democrat, in District 61, which covers Randolph County and part of Sharp. Benedict supposedly made derogatory comments about the first black elected speaker of the House during a campaign event.
Whether that was an important issue in the district, it turns out to be moot. Benedict won’t go back to the House, which will have a different speaker anyway.
In the Senate three Democratic incumbents of NEA didn’t have opposition, and Robert Thompson of Paragould barely survived a Republican challenge.
The open seat was in District 19, which covers Independence, Izard and Sharp counties, plus parts of Fulton and Randolph. The race pitted two state House members — David Wyatt of Batesville, a former county judge, and Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas, who found herself redistricted so that she would have had to face Benedict for re-election. Instead, she decided to become a Republican and run for the Senate.
But Wyatt ran up a big margin in his home county and did just well enough in the other counties to take the seat.
One new Republican senator will serve a district that includes a couple of NEA counties. That is Ronald Caldwell of Wynne, who stepped in when the Republican nominee, Tommy Caubble of Wynne, died suddenly. Caldwell defeated Democratic Rep. Jerry Brown, also of Wynne, and will represent a district that includes parts or all of seven counties.
One other region of the state also remained solidly Democratic — the less populous Southeast Arkansas, which will be represented by only one Republican senator, Jonathan Dismang in District 28, which includes Lonoke, Prairie and part of Arkansas County.
Together, these two regions make up much of the new 1st Congressional District, which makes the easy re-election of first-term Republican Congressman Rick Crawford even more remarkable. Crawford lost several of the Delta counties but rolled up a 56 percent win against Democrat Scott Ellington and two other candidates stoking their egos.
The Jonesboro incumbent skipped a statewide debate and seemed to be running more against President Barack Obama. Crawford lost that battle but won a second term as part of a Republican sweep of Arkansas’ U.S. House delegation.
The bottom line of the 2012 election: Arkansas voters created a divided state government, much like what the nation did on the federal level.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.