Early voters in Jonesboro, Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge, and other cities and towns in Northeast Arkansas are starting to cast ballots that could shape the political landscape of the state for years to come.
The stakes for Republicans and Democrats alike are high. If Republicans can sweep or at least split local legislative races and win big margins in Northeast Arkansas counties in statewide races, it will solidify their gains in the area and arguably demonstrate that their recent victories are part of a more permanent shift. If Democrats can hold the seats they currently occupy and make a few pick-ups, they could potentially re-take the Arkansas House of Representatives.
The area is Arkansas’s version of Ohio in recent presidential elections, a swing region that is starting to play a major role in state electoral politics. The races in House Districts 52, 58, 60 and 61 are each critical for both parties to control the House, and securing votes in the area could prove to be essential for victories in the statewide races as well.
In District 52, Democrats are looking to retake a long-held seat that was won in 2012 by a very slim margin (just 45 votes) by Rep. John Hutchison (R-Harrisburg), who lost his primary election. The race for this open seat, which includes Harrisburg and covers a wide area south and east of Jonesboro, is expected to be very close again.
The other races in the region are in districts are currently held by Democrats. Republicans are looking for key wins here to solidify their control of the state legislature.
To say that Northeast Arkansas is trending conservative would be a mistake. Like much of our mostly rural state, the beliefs and values of voters there have always been conservative. What’s changed is the political landscape. Republicans have built more infrastructure in the area and managed to position themselves to win votes of those who had been loyal for decades to the Democratic Party.
Andrea Allen of the Northeast Arkansas Political Animals club explained the change: “Elections here are based on relationships, and back then, there weren’t many Republicans for people to form any relationships with.” Today, she said, Republican messages are resounding more with local voters. “People feel that government intervention and intrusion going too far. I hear people talking about working 50 hours a week to get the same money that others are getting from the government.”
What then has galvanized voters and facilitated this switch? What cosmic force could accomplish such a grand realignment? Tom Cotton knows!
“We have many conservative Democrats facing challenges from Republicans who are tagging all Democrats with President Obama,” LJ Bryant, the Democratic half of Northeast Arkansas Political Animals, said. “Some Republican policies are perceived negatively here too, but when Democrats try to associate local Republican candidates with Ted Cruz or John Boehner, it’s just not effective; people don’t recognize their names like they do Obama’s.”
That Sen. John Cooper (R-Jonesboro) won state Senate District 21 earlier this year campaigning in opposition to Obamacare and the state’s private option explains why these strategies continue to hold weight, but that was in a special election to fill an empty seat left by disgraced Democratic Sen. Paul Bookout. If Republicans manage to sweep or even split the races in Northeast Arkansas in a general election, we can expect to see this same the dynamic for local elections here for the foreseeable future, or at least for as long as Democrats control the White House.
Speaking with fellow Times contributor Jay Barth shed some light on other factors that are contributing to the political changes in the area: Northeast Arkansas differs from other potential swing regions in the state in that it’s a largely rural area that is experiencing steady economic growth. Smaller rural towns are growing into more mid-sized towns as economic development brings more jobs and small businesses.
Much of this development has been spurned by Arkansas State University’s successful expansions. ASU is turning out more graduates who are filling demand for skilled labor. The increase in small business owners who are skeptical of Democratic policies like Obamacare could be playing a factor, increasing economic conservatism in an area that had for decades followed suit with much of the state’s rural economic populism.
Bryant explained why Democrats still have some advantages in the area, though: “The majority of local elected officials here are still Democrats.” The party’s long-time infrastructure on the municipal and county levels still holds up. Still, there many races for county assessor, circuit clerk, etc. now being contested and are potentially up for grabs. “If these turn Republican, then we’ll know that that the changes we’ve seen are becoming more entrenched.”
I asked Allen and Bryant to call some of the key races in the area. Here’s the breakdown:
DISTRICT 52: Radius Baker (D) vs. Dwight Tosh (R)
Allen: I give the edge to Dwight Tosh. His son just won a big school board race in September and I think that helps him a lot.
Bryant: That district was never drawn to have someone from Jonesboro win, and here we’ve got two candidates from Craighead County, a popular school superintendent and a long time state troop commander. I think it’s going to be very close.
DISTRICT 58 Harold Copenhaver (D) vs. Brandt Smith (R)
Allen: This one is tougher to call. Copenhaver is the incumbent and people in the district know him very well. John Hubbard was elected there not too long ago, though, so it’s definitely still winnable for Republicans.
Bryant: It’s always a close race in this District, you’ve seen it go back and forth over the past decade. Copenhaver has some across-the-aisle appeal and was endorsed by Davy Carter, so I like his chances.
DISTRICT 60 James Ratliff (D) vs. Blaine Davis (R)
Allen: This one’s home for me; I grew up with Blaine Davis. I think this District is tough, but it’s trending our way. If Asa Hutchinson wins I think it could carry Davis to winning this seat
Bryant: Ratliff has outraised Davis by about 3-1. Last election cycle, Americans for Prosperity just laid into him, attacking him from all sides, but he still made it. In this area, the flatland is more Democratic and the hills more Republican, but he’s from the hills so he can pick up votes there. I know several far-right people who voted for him.
DISTRICT 61: Scott Baltz (D) v Doug Driesel (R)
Allen: Lori Benedict and Linda Collins-Smith did well in this area in 2010. It’s a Republican friendly area but Baltz has done a good job with voters
Bryant: I don’t know much about Driesel but everyone up there knows Baltz. He beat the incumbent (Benedict) last time and he’s put a lot of work bringing money and jobs into his district. It’s a tight area but I think he’ll pull it out.