Secretary of State Mark Martin banged a gavel officially opening the one-week filing period to run for office in Arkansas this year. The first candidate to file was state Treasurer Dennis Milligan, and within minutes he was followed by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Gov. Asa Hutchinson — all seeking second terms.
Nationally, politicos and pundits are predicting victory for Democrats in this the first midterm election of the Donald Trump presidency. The president's approval ratings to date have been lower than any candidate since Gallup began surveying voters' opinion, and Democrats won high-profile gubernatorial and special elections last year, including a surprise upset in a U.S. Senate race in Alabama.
In Arkansas, urgency and anticipation may be on the Democratic side, but recent history — and all of the coattails of higher office holders — favor Republicans.
"It's very exciting, like being a horse at the horse races just chomping at the bit, trying to go," said Linda Dyson, who's running as a Republican from Jacksonville for the open 42nd District House seat.
The horse race analogy is one that pervades both national and state politics. Several years ago then-Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels themed the opening of the filing period a horse race, with bunting and silks and a reveille.
State Capitol historian David Ware started 17 years ago. Then, candidates lined up to "race" to file.
"If the weather was good, you'd have the prospective candidates all lined up on the steps outside, waiting to be first through the bronze doors."
It was literally a race.
"Well, a genteel race."
State Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) was at the Capitol with her mom, Patsy Wootton of Springdale. They sat beneath the large portrait of former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"It’s not like you get a different ballot position if you file first," she said, sardonically, then acknowledged that, as an incumbent, if you don't file early enough you invite speculation you won't file at all, which invites challengers.
Candidates like Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville), who's filing to run for state Senate, and Rutledge treated the event as a campaign tool. Leding made several social media posts (and a selfie video) about the day, and Rutledge arrived with a large campaign entourage carrying yard signs.
Republican party head Doyle Webb waved away any potential that 2018 is a Democratic year in Arkansas. The GOP, he said, could pick up a couple of seats in the state.
"The wave’s not going to be in Arkansas this time. Arkansas has redefined itself as a Republican state, and it will be a Republican state."
That faith was echoed by first-time state race candidate Kerry Murphy, who's trying to make the jump from Benton alderman to the District 28 House seat being vacated by Republican Kim Hammer.
"I think the media gets their hopes up high, but Arkansas is a real conservative state, and red."
Whatever may dog the Republican field nationally, in Arkansas, Republicans are the only ones with "coattails" — that is, the ability of a higher office holder to lend campaign support to a lower one (in the same party).
State Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Clarksville) said that, in his district, that support comes in the form of U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Hot Springs), whom he described as "extremely popular."
"With the governor and our congressional delegation so strong, that's a huge amount of coattails we can sort of ride."
"It really doesn't matter what the governor's approval rating is, or the president's," said Rep. Michael John Gray (D-Augusta) who also serves as the state Democratic party chairman.
Conversely, state Democrats might be raised a bit by a national wave, but "it will be up to how well they work locally to talk to people, to get past some of this noise," and he believes these races will be about roads and schools and job prospects.
"I didn’t even run based on this being the Democrats' year," said first-time state House candidate James "Jay" Richardson.
But, he added, "I think you will hear the Democrats make some noise in 2018, yeah."
Fellow first-time House candidates Jamie Scott of North Little Rock and Nicole Clowney of Fayetteville both mentioned their gender as alternately an advantage or a motivating factor in their campaigns.
Scott was, she said, the first candidate to step up to the Democratic Party's filing table.
"It wasn’t my intention to be first, but I’m excited for the Year of Women," she said. "I think a lot of people are not represented at the Captiol, and I think people want representation no matter what party they’re from."
When asked if she was running because she's outraged by national or statewide politics, Clowney said she was "a little bit outraged" before recalibrating: "I’m a lot outraged, but I’m more inspired than outraged, and I’ve got to show my seven year old that we can take that outrage and do something productive about it."
Clowney is running as a Democrat for Leding's seat, one that leans left. Likewise, Richardson and Scott are both running for seats currently held by politicians of their same party and race.
Terms for all 100 seats in the state House of Representatives and half of the Senate are up in 2018. All four U.S. congressmen have to stand for election, and this year, that’s true for all seven state constitutional officers.
If 2018 brings a national Democratic wave, the race many will be watching is in Arkansas’s Second District, where three Democratic candidates, including sitting state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), seek to unseat incumbent French Hill (R-Little Rock). He will have likely the toughest re-election race of any of the four Arkansas congressmen.
Hill didn’t show up to file but his campaign chair Judith Goodson did it for him. She said things are going in the right direction with this representative — "why would you want to turn that out of office?”
Another Hill supporter, June Matheny, said the optimism this cycle should be with Republicans.
"I've watched my President, and I like what he’s done. I like his Christian faith, and I do believe the Lord has his hand on him and will lead them [the Republicans] into victory."
She predicts the U.S. House and Senate will hold, and what’s more — "In 2020 we’ll have Donald Trump again, yay!"
Arkansas polls have President Trump fairing perhaps a bit worse than when he got elected but far better than the national average — roughly 40 percent. Gov. Asa Hutchinson enjoys the support of more than six in 10 Arkansans, according to the Arkansas Poll.
When asked if Filing Day wasn't a little bittersweet because presumably it's the last time he'll file to run as a candidate in Arkansas, the governor said, "Oh, I never say never in politics."
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