With primary season coming to a merciful end last week, the sprint to Nov. 6 is officially underway. Several months ago, John Ray, Jesse Bacon and I produced one of the first legislative district-level projections for the state, showing that the state’s minority party could pick up as many as 16 seats if things broke just right in 2018. The prospects for a Democratic resurgence seemed bright, if only the party could recruit enough people to run.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. As we’ve written in other columns, the Democratic Party of Arkansas had an uneven performance during candidate recruitment season. They managed to field a full slate of candidates in the 3rd Congressional District and a near-full slate in the 2nd, but fell far short in the Delta (1st District) and South Arkansas (4th District). Only 58 of the lower chamber’s 100 seats have a Democratic candidate on the ballot. As a result, our latest model projects far more modest gains for Democrats in November: seven seats, rather than 16, is the new median projection in our model.
Still, those seven seats would radically reconfigure the legislature in Little Rock. Flipping them would dissolve the Republican supermajority that’s allowed members like Reps. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville), Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville), and Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) to run roughshod over a powerless Democratic caucus in the house. Though Ballinger is running for state Senate, the three districts have Democratic challengers who have a real shot at winning in November: Denise Garner (taking on Collins), Monica Ball (Lowery) and Gary Morris (running against Republican Harlan Breaux for Ballinger’s old District 97 seat).
But as others are likely to ask, how did we go from 16 seats to seven between January and June in our projections? The first, and most important factor, is simply that Democrats aren’t fielding enough candidates to build a true wave in Arkansas. You can’t win if you don’t play. Though the party is fielding a number of young, exciting and diverse candidates, it isn’t doing what its counterparts in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Maine and Ohio have: field a full, 100-candidate slate for their lower chambers. The best way to remedy this in 2020 is to lower — or perhaps even erase — the party’s exorbitant filing fees at least for first-time candidates. The other factors stem from shifts in national indicators like the general ballot polling question and the president’s improved standing in public opinion polls. It seems strange to say that a president whose net approval is negative 10 and whose disapproval rating is 52.5 percent has improved his standing, but that’s life in the Trump era. He’s been more than 20 points underwater this year, with a disapproval rating near 60 percent at times. Whether he can hold or improve on his standing between now and November will determine how competitive many of the state’s legislative races become.
But as they meander through the political wilderness, Arkansas Democrats now have to take a longer view if they plan to build power and infrastructure in the state. One way to balance the electoral pressures of 2018 with the need to build an organization over time is to rethink how the party and its high-profile candidates spend their campaign cash this year. Rather than candidate-centric television ads, the party and campaigns like Clarke Tucker’s (likely to be the state’s top Democratic fundraiser) should invest in their organizers and in modernizing the party’s antiquated data gathering and analysis systems.