It’s premature to say that Arkansas Democrats are back, but they probably had their best week since 2010.
When the candidate filing period for next year’s elections ended at noon Tuesday, the party announced it would contest all four congressional district races, 64 state House districts, and seven state Senate districts, among other races. In total, 78 Democrats are running for state House seats, with some competing against each other.
In contrast, two years ago, the party contested only 48 House districts. It did contest 17 Senate races, but the higher number partly can be explained by all of the seats being on the ballot because of redistricting following the census.
That election was the latest in a grim decade for the party following the 2010 elections, when Republicans were ascendant but some Democrats still won, including Gov. Mike Beebe and U.S. Rep. Mike Ross.
Since then, there haven’t been many victories for the party that had dominated Arkansas politics since shortly after the Civil War. Republicans now control all congressional offices, all statewide offices, and more than 82% of the Legislature. Only six of the state’s 35 senators and 18 of its 100 representatives are Democrats.
Grant Tennille, the full-time, unpaid Democratic Party chair, said the party hasn’t had this many candidates in 10 years. He said Democrats have been energized by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ school-changing LEARNS Act – a number of the party’s candidates are educators – as well as the recent special session where she sought to change the Freedom of Information Act. Her office’s purchase of a $19,000 lectern seems to have entered the public consciousness.
“The governor has gone through a bad patch here, and there are a whole bunch of people who have energy that they didn’t have six-eight months ago,” he said. “Things got easier for us as filing went on. People are looking for us again.”
Tennille said the party recruited candidates by contacting county parties and asking who might be available. He said he often gets texts and emails offering suggestions for who to contact. Prospects often are surprised that their neighbors thought of them.
Helping with the process has been Chris Jones, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year against Sanders. He then formed a political action committee, Vortex PAC, that recruits and supports candidates.
Tennille is especially pleased that the party fielded candidates in all four congressional districts. Among them are Marcus Jones, a retired colonel who served 29 years in the Army. He’s taking on U.S. Rep. French Hill in the 2nd District, the state’s most competitive. It won’t be the first time Hill has faced a strong opponent. Each time he’s won with room to spare.
What kinds of issues might Democrats emphasize? Tennille said someone needs to talk about the state’s removal of hundreds of thousands of Arkansans from the Medicaid rolls following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the normal yearly renewal process was suspended. Surely LEARNS will be a big issue as well.
Where Democrats will have a problem in Arkansas is the candidate at the top of the ballot – President Biden at the moment – and with culture war issues. Tennille said he has “zero time or tolerance” with those issues; they’re about “beating up on people that certain folks don’t like,” he said. Pressed a little about the fact that those issues nevertheless exist, he said, “We are going to continue to preach the gospel of loving everybody and working for everybody.”
Tennille said there are many places where the party is probably two cycles away from being able to more seriously contest. Demographic changes in Northwest Arkansas, northeastern Arkansas and central Arkansas will make those areas more competitive. Now is the time to start building for those cycles.
The Democrats’ short-term goal is to win enough seats to break the Republican “supermajority.” If they could occupy more than 25% of the seats in the House or Senate, then they could block Republican spending bills (if they remained united and if they wanted to) and at least have a seat at the table. To do that, they would have to pick up either three Senate seats or eight House seats.
It’s extremely unlikely that will happen this cycle, but Democrats might be more competitive than they have been. After what they’ve experienced the last decade-plus, just picking up one or two seats in the state Legislature would be another good week for the party.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.