With all attention now focused on the high-octane and high-dollar races for statewide offices and for Arkansas’s congressional seats, the battle for control of the Arkansas State House of Representatives is getting less attention than it deserves. Unlike the 2010 and 2012 election cycles when some clear tides in the GOP direction were expressing themselves by this stage of the game, a much more complex, district-by-district story is emerging in 2014.
The story shifts with each rumor of a new poll or report from the field, but control of the House (where Republicans currently hold 51 seats) will likely be determined by the outcomes in seven races scattered across the northwestern portion of the state. Importantly, because candidates on both sides have raised relatively little money considering the stakes (with one striking exception), outside groups on both sides are increasingly engaged in these races, mostly through direct mail appeals, and will play an outsized role in determining their outcomes.
These three Democratic-held seats are most susceptible to GOP pickup:
District 35 (Little Rock): An exceptional contest in terms of fundraising, the most expensive House race in the state’s history feels much like a party primary battle because differences on key issues are secondary to personality clashes. This contest, between Little Rock City Director Stacy Hurst, a Republican, and attorney Clarke Tucker, a Democrat, is dividing families and church pews.
District 41 (northern Pulaski County): Organized labor advocate Jim Nickels won close races in a district increasingly unfriendly to Democrats in both 2008 and 2012. This year, former school superintendent Danny Knight faces Republican Justice of the Peace Karilyn Brown in a race where Democrats hope congressional candidate Patrick Hays’ comparative strength north of the river can help save a district skewing Republican.
District 63 (Independence County): Term-limited Democrat James McLean is giving up this Batesville-centered district to run for the state Senate in a portion of the state that has become increasingly tough sledding for Democrats in the Obama era (the president won barely one-quarter of the vote in the county in 2012) but where voters have shown a ticket-splitting ability that has saved some Democratic officeholders down the ticket. Democrat Lackey Moody will need Republican voters at the top of the ticket if he is to beat Republican James Sturch.
Republicans have hopes of expanding the map in Northeast Arkansas outside of District 63 into districts held by Democratic incumbents Harold Copenhaver and Homer Lenderman — both representing portions of Craighead County — and in some districts in the “rural swing” counties of Southwest Arkansas, but Districts 35, 41 and 63 are the three most tenuous Democratic districts.
Conversely, while Democrats have their own hopes of bringing new races onto the list (especially in Northwest Arkansas and in battleground Faulkner County), four districts provide the best hope for the pickups that might switch the balance of power in the House.
District 18 (Arkadelphia area): With Arkadelphia as its center, this southwest Arkansas district was perhaps the Democratic Party’s source of greatest frustration in 2012 when Republican Richard Womack won a seat expected to go comfortably Democratic after redistricting. Democrats feel good about their chances with Damon Daniels but challenging an incumbent, even in friendly partisan territory, is always tough.
District 32 (West Little Rock): Democrats were deeply disappointed by their failure to defeat an incumbent in 2012 with a top-level challenger. That incumbent, Allen Kerr, is gone and the race is now on between Tea Party ally and former Justice of the Peace Jim Sorvillo and Democrat John Adams, who lost in the 2010 congressional primary in a district that shows signs of diversification as the city continues to grow west.
District 52 (Northeast Arkansas): This district, covering parts of four counties, went to a recount in 2012 when John Hutchison won the GOP control of the House with a 45-vote victory here. Hutchison is already gone, having lost a primary to Dwight Tosh. Radius Baker was the first choice of Democrats who believe the geographical patterns in the district favor the former school superintendent.
District 94 (Benton County): One surprise of the year has been Democrats’ rebirth in Northwest Arkansas. That reinvigoration of the party in Walton territory may show limited fruit this cycle, but its best chance increasingly centers on this Rogers district where former high school teacher Grimsley Graham is emphasizing support for environmental protection in his race against Rebecca Petty, who won an intensely fought GOP primary.
With Jeremy Gillam having been elected Speaker Pro Tem, we know who will lead the House if the Republicans maintain or expand their current margin. If Democrats pick up just enough seats to tip the balance (or, more bizarrely, if a quite possible 50/50 tie emerges), several days of chaos will likely ensue as the new power structure develops. That’s right, folks; politics doesn’t really end on Nov. 4.
Ernest Dumas is on vacation.