As countless election recaps recounted in 2012, Republicans took control of the Arkansas General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. But before we count the Natural State dead red, keep in mind that in the state House of Representatives, Republicans have the narrowest of majorities (51-49, including one Green who caucuses with the Dems), and they only got there by winning District 52 in Northeast Arkansas in 2012 by 45 votes.
With a favorable map this time around, Democrats have a path to retake control. While the big boys at the top of the ballot soak up all the media oxygen, the House could be the most consequential political story in terms of bread-and-butter issues in Arkansas. It’s likely to be very, very, very close. Here are some races to watch.
District 18 (Arkadelphia area)
Democrat: Damon Daniels
Republican: Rep. Richard Womack
This one is a test case for the private option in a general election. Hardcore Tea Partier Rep. Richard Womack of Arkadelphia reportedly said at one candidate forum that he had devoted his life to ending the private option. That might be an awkward fit for this district, given the influence of Baptist Health Medical Center in Arkadelphia. Democrat Damon Daniels of Alpine, the owner of a dispatch trucking company, has been a steadfast supporter of the policy. Womack won with a small margin last time and this is seen as a strong pickup opportunity for the Dems.
District 26 (Malvern and surrounding area)
Democrat: Rep. David Kizzia
Republican: Laurie Rushing
Rep. David Kizzia of Malvern distinguished himself in his freshman year as one of the most competent and thoughtful legislators on the Democratic side, and no one in the House is more passionate or knowledgeable about pre-K and early childhood education. Kizzia took this seat by 10 percentage points in 2012, but he had the advantage of running against an opponent, Loy Mauch, who was disturbingly fond of slavery. No such luck this time — Republican Laurie Rushing, a Tea Party-approved Hot Springs realtor, is considered a strong candidate.
District 31 (Ferndale area)
Democrat: Clea Hupp
Republican: Rep. Andy Davis
Incumbent Rep. Andy Davis of Little Rock is a pro-private-option establishment Republican best known for attempts to dismantle environmental protections, including a law he passed that backfired catastrophically when the federal Environmental Protection Agency responded with plans to intervene to make sure Arkansas didn’t violate the Clean Water Act; the law was repealed in a special session. Davis, an engineer, has been a consistent champion for industries he works for; Davis’ own company, New Water Systems, has been cited 21 times in three years by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality for releasing contaminated water. He’s being challenged by University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor Dr. Clea Hupp, who is focusing on education and raising the minimum wage. Davis is expected to cruise to victory, but Democrats are playing hard here.
District 32 (West Little Rock)
Democrat: John Adams
Republican: Jim Sorvillo
Democrats have had their eyes on this seat (in a district with a population diversifying faster than you might think) for a while. Republican Rep. Allen Kerr, an establishment Republican who flipped his vote to a nay on the private option during the fiscal session, is term limited. Former Justice of the Peace Jim Sorvillo, a GOP Tea Partier, is vying for the seat against Democrat John Adams, a banker and former assistant attorney general, who lost the Democratic primary for 2nd District Congress in 2010. Adams has been active in good-government efforts, including Regnat Populus. This probably still remains favorable territory for Republicans. Another race where the private option looms large.
District 35 (Little Rock Heights and parts of West Little Rock)
Democrat: Clarke Tucker
Republican: Stacy Hurst
The most expensive House race in the history of the state pits Little Rock City Director Stacy Hurst, a self-described “very moderate Republican,” against Democrat Clarke Tucker, a political newcomer with a familiar name in town (his father is developer Rett Tucker). Hurst reportedly originally planned to run as a Democrat before billionaire backer Warren Stephens told her she had to go GOP. With little separating the two candidates on the issues, the race has gotten personal and nasty. This district, where Obama won twice, has been a blue island in a red state. Can Hurst flip it?
District 38 (northern Pulaski County)
Democrat: Rep. Patti Julian
Republican: Donnie Copeland
Rep. Patti Julian of North Little Rock wasn’t afraid to stand with her party and take tough votes in her first term, which has Republicans viewing her as a target. Julian, a retired North Little Rock lawyer, is being challenged by Donnie Copeland of Sherwood, a Pentecostal pastor whose previous forays into politics include a failed bid in the 2012 GOP primary for lieutenant governor against pizza man Mark Darr. Copeland is an extreme right-winger being backed by Tea Party gadfly Curtis Coleman. Outside groups like Conduit for Action, affiliated with Fayetteville millionaire Joe Maynard, a diehard opponent of the private option, have targeted this race.
District 41 (northern Pulaski County)
Democrat: Danny Knight
Republican: Karilyn Brown
This is a seat being vacated by term-limited Rep. Jim Nickels, a strong progressive who won a squeaker in 2012 to hang on to a reddening district. Democrat Danny Knight of Sherwood, a former school superintendent, faces off against Republican Justice of the Peace Karilyn Brown, also of Sherwood. Having Pat Hays, the popular former mayor of North Little Rock, on the congressional ballot could help Democrats hang tough north of the river, but Brown, another Tea Party favorite, has reportedly been running ahead thus far.
District 52 (Northeast Arkansas)
Democrat: Radius Baker
Republican: Dwight Tosh
This was the Florida of the 2012 Arkansas House race, with Republican John Hutchison eking out a tiny 45-vote victory, 45 votes that gave GOPs control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction. It could be the difference-making race that will keep us up watching late again this year. Hutchison, the least qualified person in all of state government, went down in the primary to extreme right-winger Dwight Tosh, a retired State Police officer. Radius Baker, a former school superintendent with a strong base in the Valley View School District, is taking on Tosh, with control of the House potentially in the balance.
District 53 (Craighead County)
Democrat: Rep. Homer Lenderman
Republican: Dan Sullivan
This is a big target for the GOP with turf getting friendlier and friendlier to Republicans, as witnessed by Republican Sen. John Cooper’s big win in a special election to take Democrat Paul Bookout’s old seat. Rep. Homer Lenderman (D-Paragould), a retired teacher serving his second term, ran unopposed in 2012, but could be vulnerable this year. This time he’s facing off against Dan Sullivan, CEO of Ascent Children’s Health Services, which provides mental health services for children. The company, for which Sullivan has worked as a lobbyist at the Capitol, is heavily dependent on state Medicaid dollars. Sullivan, who lost to Cooper in a fiercely contested primary in the special election for Bookout’s seat, has taken an Asa Hutchinson-style evasive approach to the private option. Polling has tightened in a race that has divided church pews — both Lenderman and Sullivan are elders in the Church of Christ, a powerful voting bloc in the district.
District 58 (Jonesboro area)
Democrat: Rep. Harold Copenhaver
Republican: Brandt Smith
Another seat Republicans are targeting aggressively because the Jonesboro area has gone dead red over the last few years, but Rep. Harold Copenhaver, a Jonesboro insurance salesman whose business caters to churches, is extremely popular in the district. Republican Brandt Smith, a former pastor and missionary who spent time working for a nongovernmental organization in Iraq during the war, is the challenger. GOPs are playing hard, but Copenhaver is considered the favorite to hold on to the seat he won in 2012 challenging slavery apologist Rep. Jon Hubbard.
District 59 (Craighead County)
Democrat: Ron Carroll
Republican: Jack Ladyman
Yet another tight battle in Northeast Arkansas. Term-limited Rep. Butch Wilkins, a conservative Democrat, narrowly survived a challenge from John Cooper (now the state senator) in 2012. Democrats have a strong candidate to fill the open seat in Ron Carroll, the head athletic trainer at Arkansas State University, though he’s not a natural-born campaigner. His opponent, Jack Ladyman, formerly an engineer at the failed Nordex plant in Jonesboro, leans establishment Republican; he opposes the private option but doesn’t sound like he’s vying for a spot in the “Hell No” caucus. Ladyman has some baggage — improper tax exemptions, whispers about fiscal mismanagement during his tenure as mayor of Elkins, and past domestic violence incidents. Still, this one’s a tossup.
District 63 (Independence County)
Democrat: Lackey Moody
Republican: James Sturch
Term-limited Rep. James McLean (D-Batesville) is in a dogfight for a Senate seat. Can Democrats hang on to the Batesville area? It won’t be easy. Democratic Justice of the Peace Lackey Moody, a realtor, faces off against Republican James Sturch, a UALR student pursuing a master’s degree in public administration. This is a tossup race that could make the difference for control of the House. Moody’s daughter wrote a very cute radio jingle that could swing the race.
District 70 (Conway area)
Democrat: Frank Shaw
Republican: Rep. David Meeks
Taking down the incumbent, Rep. David Meeks, of Conway, would be a shocking upset, though we keep hearing it could be closer than a lot of folks expect. Meeks, a former propane truck driver who teaches Sunday school, is the mouthpiece for the hyperactive Faulkner County Tea Party. Democrat Frank Shaw is a Conway lawyer previously rumored to be considering a run against state Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway).
District 84 (Fayetteville area)
Democrat: Candy Clark
Republican: Rep. Charlie Collins
He’s the favorite to hang on, but even some Republican insiders believe Fayetteville Rep. Charlie Collins is vulnerable. The two-term-incumbent Collins, a bulldog legislator known for a narrow obsession with tax cuts and “Charnalogies” (frequent metaphors that infrequently make sense), won a squeaker last time and faces a strong challenger in Democratic Justice of the Peace Candy Clark, who has been on the Quorum Court for five years and is a former member of the Fayetteville Planning Commission. Collins originally planned to ditch the district for a run for lieutenant governor but backed out when Tim Griffin entered that race.
District 93 (Bentonville)
Democrat: Leah Williams
Republican: Rep. Jim Dotson
This is a long shot but Democrats are trying to expand the map into Benton County. Incumbent Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville is one of the most right-wing and least active (he passed just one bill) legislators in the state. The Democratic challenger, Leah Williams, is a strong candidate: a member of the Bentonville City Council, a former Walmart employee and wife of a Walmart employee. She has gotten the endorsement of former Republican U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt and is emphasizing education and economic development. The dynamics in the race are interesting. Walmart money backed an unsuccessful primary challenge against Dotson, and get this: It’s flowing money toward Democrat Williams in the general election, too. Big business Republicans aren’t always happy with purist ideologues like Dotson.
District 94 (Rogers)
Democrat: Grimsley Graham
Republican: Rebecca Petty
If the Democrats pull off a miracle and win a seat in Benton County, this is the most promising target. That’s hard to believe, given that Rogers sent right-wing extremist Debbie Hobbs (term-limited) to the House for six years. Grimsley Graham, a Marine Corps vet and longtime English teacher at Rogers High School, could be the one to turn the tides — we’ve been hearing universal raves about Graham from the Rogers area. If there’s a spot where candidate quality could overcome the “R” by a candidate’s name, this could be it. Still a tough slog in Benton County. Graham is taking on Rebecca Petty, an advocate for families of victims of child predators, who won a closely fought GOP primary by out-Tea-Partying her opponent.