Although the Senate primaries in Arkansas are going to be a snooze, there are some other interesting races to watch in the state.
— On the congressional level, there are two open races worth paying attention to. In the 4th District, incumbent Tom Cotton is bowing out to test his luck in the Senate race. State Rep. Bruce Westerman and Tommy Moll, former Bush-era think tanker and businessman, are facing off for the Republican nomination today. They’ve spent most of the campaign fighting about Obamacare. The winner – Westerman is in the lead — will face off against James Lee Witt, who ran FEMA during the Clinton presidency. Former president Clinton is starring in a Web-based ad campaign that the Witt campaign started today.
In the 2nd District, frontrunner French Hill is fighting state Rep. Ann Clemmer and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds for the Republican nomination to replace Rep. Tim Griffin, who is stepping down, curiously enough, to run for state-level office in the lieutenant governor race. (Griffin’s closest opponent in the Republican primary, Andy Mayberry, is running on a platform to abolish the post of Arkansas lieutenant governor.) Former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays is the Democratic candidate in the 2nd District race. Last November, Republican strategist Clint Reed told the Arkansas Times that the 2nd District could be “one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country.” It’s important to note how weird these competitive Republican primaries would have been a few years ago. Democratic governance in Arkansas was once such a foregone conclusion that the races were usually decided as soon as the Democratic primary was won. As Andrew DeMillio at the Associated Press puts it, “The primary could put a spotlight on the split between establishment candidates and tea party- backed hopefuls, a relatively new divide for a party whose divisions once fell more along geographical than ideological lines.”
— Gov. Mike Beebe, who won all 75 counties in the state while his fellow Democratic Arkansans suffered major losses in 2010, is not running in 2014 thanks to term limits. Two former U.S. representatives, Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson, are likely to win tonight’s primaries and face-off in November. In a recent NBC News/Marist match-up, Hutchinson had the support of 49 percent of registered voters in the state, while Ross had 42 percent. Seven percent were undecided. Clinton held a fundraiser for Ross in early May.
— In Arkansas, the attorney general job is often a launching pad for future governors; it’s how Bill Clinton did it, notes Jay Barth at Hendrix College, who said “it’s a race that has not gotten very much attention” this year. The attorney general would also defend Arkansas in same-sex marriage cases. Lawyers Patrica Nation, Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling are all vying for the Republican nomination. State Rep. Nate Steel is the only Democratic candidate. A Talk Business-Hendrix College poll from late April showed that Sterling led among likely primary voters with 21 percent of the vote. However, 60 percent of respondents answered, “I don’t know” when asked who they would vote for in the primary race. There could be a run-off.
— Another interesting thing to watch — will the Democratic Party get to keep their “majority party status?” Here’s an explanation from Talk Business & Politics:
Technically, Republicans are still the “minority party” in Arkansas despite controlling the General Assembly and five of six congressional seats. State law defines the majority party as the party that has a majority of the state’s seven constitutional offices at the last election. It once was the party that held the governorship, but a Democratic legislature altered the law when Republican Winthrop Rockefeller ascended to the state’s top post.
Why is “majority party” status important? Beyond bragging rights, the majority party constitutes of two of the three election board members in each of Arkansas’ 75 counties. Those panels determine voting locations, rule on local election decisions such as recounts, and carry tremendous influence on election-day mechanics.
If the Republicans can field winning candidates in those seven state-level races, they could further demonstrate the party’s growing influence in the state. This year will be the first to feature more Republican primary voters than Democratic primary voters, predicts Barth, who calls it a “historic step” for the state.
— The issue that has defined nearly every Republican primary is Arkansas’ controversial “private option” Medicare expansion plan, which has divided state Republicans into two camps, strongly for and strongly against. It’s basically Arkansas’ version of the national battle over Obamacare. Even the state treasury primary — which has gotten quite nasty — has featured the candidates sparring over health care.
— The primary election will also prove the first to feature the state’s voter-ID law. Secretary of State Mark Martin’s spokesperson told the Associated Press, “We put a lot of effort into letting people know they need their photo ID … and I think that paid off.” Asa Hutchinson, heading to the polls at Bentonville to likely vote for himself, forgot his photo ID at home. A staffer had to go fetch it.