Nationally, the 2018 midterms hold promise for those hoping for a check on President Trump and congressional Republicans. Yes, the U.S. Senate is probably out of reach, but Democrats will very likely capture the House. (It should be a certainty, given that poll after poll shows American voters this cycle prefer a generic congressional Democrat by a margin of five to 10 points, but years of gerrymandering will help the GOP blunt that momentum somewhat.) Dems might also pick up control of governorships and legislative chambers in several states.
Arkansas won't be one of them. Recent polls show something like two-thirds of the state approves of Trump's job performance. In many places, the president is a millstone for Republican officeholders. Here, he's the wind beneath their wings.
Though Democrats are fielding strong candidates in all four of the state's congressional races, they're each trailing Republican incumbents by wide margins. The contest in the 2nd District is the closest, but U.S. Rep. French Hill remains well ahead of Democratic state Rep. Clarke Tucker. At the state level, Democrats running for governor and attorney general aren't anywhere near striking distance of their GOP opponents. And because
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Remember the bloodbath of 2014 and the shock of 2016. Take those low expectations and ratchet them down another notch or two. That's half our advice for Election Day 2018 in Arkansas.
The other half is this: Get out, vote and tell everyone you know to do the same. Keep working after Nov. 6, no matter what happens. One way in which Arkansas does mirror national trends is the level of enthusiasm and energy this cycle on the Democratic side: Despite long odds, the party is fielding remarkable candidates this year in
Here's our roundup of the most interesting Arkansas races in 2018. Some are all but impossible for Democrats to win. In others, they have a fighting chance. Two nonpartisan contests, for Little Rock mayor and state Supreme Court justice, also bear close attention. (The biggest unknowns, however, are the three nonpartisan questions remaining on the ballot this year: voter ID, casino gambling and a big minimum wage hike.)
Related Rising wages lift all
What follows isn't comprehensive. We've left off a number of worthy contenders. There's Democrat Mike Lee's challenge to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, whose kneejerk dedication to championing national Republican causes in federal court is an embarrassment to the state. There's Hayden Shamel, a Hot Springs teacher valiantly running against incumbent Rep. Bruce Westerman in the 4th Congressional District. We're also watching several statehouse races not mentioned here, including Democrat Monica Ball's bid to unseat Republican Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle in House District 39 and an open race between Democrat Andrew Collins and Republican Judith Goodson for HD 35, the legislative seat now occupied by Clarke Tucker.
Related Chintan Desai is trying to turn the Delta blue: Despite long odds, the Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford means business.
2nd Congressional District
U.S. Rep. French Hill (R) vs. state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D)
If you care anything about state politics, you know the narrative of this race: This is Democrats' best chance to pick up a congressional seat in Arkansas since Republicans rode an anti-Obama wave in
Meanwhile, ex-banker Hill, also of Little Rock, has been a reliable supporter of President Trump's agenda in Congress, including voting for the deficit-exploding tax cut that largely benefits the wealthy. Not surprisingly, his wealth of campaign cash comes from Wall Street types, including a quarter of a million from Stephens Inc. sources. Prepare to be even more inundated with campaign commercials during the home stretch, including many straight from the Trump playbook that
- U.S. Rep. Steve Womack
3rd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R) vs. Joshua Mahony (D)
Four-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Womack chairs the House Budget Committee, which has introduced a budget proposal for 2019 that calls for $537 billion in cuts to Medicare, $1.5 trillion in cuts to Medicaid and $4 billion in cuts to Social Security over 10 years to pay for President Trump's massive tax giveaway to the rich, which Womack, of course, supported. After Trump described Haiti and African nations as "shithole countries" earlier this year, Womack defended the president in an interview with a Northwest Arkansas TV station, saying, "if you're only appealing to people from countries that are behind the times, depraved countries, if that's the element you're appealing to ... we should make the same or a better appeal to people from other European countries that can come in here and actually fit into
Mahony, an El Dorado native whose uncle was longtime state legislator Jodie Mahony, is part owner of a natural resources company and past president of the boards of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund and the Ozark Literacy Council. His wife, Rhianon DeLeeuw, is an executive at Walmart. Mahony is a quality candidate who has said all the right things, but he's almost certainly going to lose. A Democrat hasn't carried the district since 1967.
- Joshua Mahony
Still, Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College and a columnist for the Arkansas Times, notes that how much support Mahony can muster could be a gauge of whether the Democratic Party has a chance to make near-term inroads in Northwest Arkansas as it's long hoped. "If he gets to 40
Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Justice Courtney Goodson vs. David Sterling
This is a runoff election for Position 3 on the state's high court. Goodson has been on the Supreme Court since 2011; she lost an election for chief justice of the court to Dan Kemp in 2016. David Sterling, the chief counsel for the state Department of Human Services, lost a bid to be the Republican nominee for
- Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson
Meanwhile, conservative dark money has poured into the race, all to the aid of Sterling. In the May general election, the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative political campaign organization, spent more than $900,000 attacking Goodson and Hixson. Another dark money group funded by business groups and tobacco companies has also spent six-figure sums.
That's led to a strange legal sideshow in this race: Goodson filed a lawsuit in the spring to block TV networks from airing one of JCN's
Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and the director of the influential Arkansas Poll, points to research from Melinda Gann Hall, the author of "Attacking Judges: How Campaign Advertising Influences State Supreme Court Races." Hall suggests that attack ads are most influential in nonpartisan elections, Parry said, since voters don't have party labels to help them decide between candidates they otherwise know little or nothing about.
- David Sterling
"In the absence of any information, people will use the information that's available. So that leaves an opening for an attack ad to be the only information that people have ... and when they do have an effect, they depress the vote share for the incumbent," Parry explained. She hastened to add that that was a general finding and the specifics of this race could yield a different outcome.
Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) vs. Jared Henderson (D)
Like the other constitutional officer races, the outcome of this one isn't in doubt. Hutchinson, who is seeking a second four-year term, is a fairly popular Republican governor in a Trump-loving state. His easy victory in the May primary over pro-gun activist Jan Morgan showed he maintains solid control over his base.
- Brian Chilson
- Governor Hutchinson
Hutchinson's first term could have been much worse, as far as GOP governors go. Though a conservative, he occasionally moderated some of the
- Jared Henderson
Hutchinson wants to
Henderson, 40, has campaigned with remarkable energy for a longshot candidate and introduced policy plans for ethics reform, education and more. His resume shows the same work ethic: He grew up in Arkansas, earned two master's degrees at Harvard and worked as a research scientist at NASA. He's best known in the state for his work in public education, including several years as the director of Teach for America in Arkansas. This is his first run for office, but it seems unlikely to be his last.
Secretary of State Susan Inman (D) vs. state Land Commissioner John Thurston (R)
- Susan Inman
Don't sleep on this race between eminently qualified Susan Inman and John Thurston, whose sole strength is the "R" beside his name on the ballot. Under term-limited Secretary of State Mark Martin, Republicans have done everything they can to limit voting, much as they have around the country. But unlike many of his fellow Republican secretaries of state, Martin was quick to hand over sensitive voter information to President Trump's sham voter fraud commission, now defunct. The candidate that succeeds Martin will be responsible, along with the governor and attorney general, for redrawing state legislative districts following the 2020 Census, and he or she will be tasked with ensuring the security of our voting systems under the increasing threat of foreign interference.
- Land Commissioner John Thurston
Such was the strength of the Republican wave (i.e., antipathy toward President Obama) in Arkansas in 2010 that voters elected Thurston, a political novice and security and maintenance man for a West Little Rock church, as commissioner of state lands. Over the course of two terms, he seemed to distinguish himself among Republican constitutional officers by keeping his head down. But recently, Blue Hog Report's Matt Campbell revealed that Thurston had spent almost $30,000 on a boat equipped for bass fishing and used only six times in almost four years for its alleged purpose, searching for debris in Arkansas waterways. That's a job not given by statute or custom to
Inman has been
Little Rock Mayor
Baker Kurrus, Warwick Sabin, Frank Scott, et al.
- Brian Chilson
- Baker Kurrus
The politics in this nonpartisan race to replace outgoing Mayor Mark Stodola defy easy description. An early October poll by Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College showed the three leading candidates in an effective tie, with a third of voters still undecided. While Kurrus, Scott and Sabin have each developed distinct constituencies, it's likely that none will capture the percentage point threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
Sabin, a Democratic state legislator representing Hillcrest, has a natural base among the city's many frustrated progressives, who will likely turn out in high numbers due to the hot congressional race in the 2nd District. He also polls well among younger voters. Scott, a banker and former state highway commissioner who grew up in Southwest Little Rock, is the leading African-American candidate. He's likely to capture much of the black vote while attracting some support from the larger business community.
Related Baker Kurrus wants to be mayor of a town with stronger neighborhoods, closer connections: A song for you.
Related Frank Scott Jr.: the unifier: The Little Rock native wants to bring a divided city together.
Related Warwick Sabin: The Visionary: He says he has the resume and ideas to move Little Rock forward.
The lack of a clear conservative candidate has created an opening for Kurrus, a corporate lawyer and businessman, to appeal to voters who tend to be older and whiter. He enjoys support among Republicans and independents. Yet he's also retained goodwill among some liberals because of his service as Little Rock School District superintendent and his outspoken position against charter school expansion.
- Warwick Sabin
There are two other contenders. Vincent Tolliver, a writer and progressive activist, says he's spearheading a "people's campaign" but has little campaign to speak of; Glen Schwarz, a perennial gadfly candidate, talks mostly about reforming marijuana laws and building roller coasters. Neither will win, but their presence could have a decisive impact. If Tolliver and Schwarz captured a few percentage points, that could help force the contest to a runoff.
Scott and Kurrus both emphasize a message of unity. Sabin speaks of bringing real change to the city. Regardless of who wins, though, the next mayor will have to navigate Little Rock's confusing hybrid system of governance, in which the mayor's executive authority overlaps with that of an appointed city manager and the geriatric city board of directors too often calls the shots. In other words, unity and change are both easier said than done.
- Brian Chilson
- Frank Scott
House District 84
State Rep. Charlie Collins (R) vs. Denise Garner (D)
- Brian Chilson
- State Rep. Charlie Collins
For four terms, Charlie Collins has been among the most dogmatic legislators in the state House of Representatives. The two issues he goes on about endlessly — on Twitter, in the well of the House and in the press — are guns and taxes. Collins is the godfather of the legislation to put more guns on college campuses and in other public places, including courthouses and the Capitol. He's said his efforts will prevent mass shootings, despite ample evidence that guns on campus and in other sensitive places make us less safe. Collins is also a longtime champion of cutting taxes to benefit the wealthy, or "job creators." He's disparaged instituting an earned income tax credit in Arkansas, a method of rewarding work that's historically been embraced by both parties, as "welfare."
- Denise Garner
Denise Garner is a retired nurse practitioner,
This is the race to watch in the House. Each candidate had raised more than $100,000 as of September filings.
House District 32
State Rep. Jim Sorvillo (R) vs. Jess Mallett (D)
- Jess Mallet
Jess Mallett, the managing partner of the Peter Miller Law Firm, is the latest in a string of excellent Democratic candidates to run for this West Little Rock seat. The last three — Barbara Graves in 2012, John Adams in 2014 and Susan Inman in 2016 — fell short. Will Mallett benefit from the storied "educated white women fleeing the party of Trump" bump? She's running on issues like raising public school teacher pay, fighting government corruption and requiring Arkansas companies to offer paid maternity leave. A Morrilton native, Mallett is the daughter of Bart Virden, longtime state Court of Appeals judge. Sorvillo has been a reliably conservative vote during his two terms but has done nothing to distinguish himself.
House District 41
State Rep. Karilyn Brown (R) vs. Jonathan Crossley (D)
- Jonathan Crossley
Jonathan Crossley, 30, is a dream candidate for Democrats. A first-generation college graduate, he landed in the Palestine-Wheatley School District in East Arkansas through Teach for America. There, after four years, he increased the percentage of his students performing at the proficient level from 32
House District 93
State Rep. Jim Dotson (R) vs. Gayatri Agnew (D)
- Rep. Jim Dotson
Is Bentonville truly becoming more cosmopolitan? Democrats have talked wistfully about making inroads here and elsewhere in growing Northwest Arkansas for years. Jim Dotson, who has represented the district since 2012, has been one of the legislature's most extreme members. He won his primary contest in May by fewer than 200 votes. Are voters growing weary of Dotson's record? He slopped up almost $40,000 in expenses charged to taxpayers in 2017 — the second-highest total — on top of his $39,500 base salary as a legislator. He also directed $13,500 from the state's General Improvement Fund to Ecclesia College, the tiny Bible college that's been at the
- Gayatri Agnew
Gayatri Agnew is a senior director of the Walmart Foundation, the charitable arm of the Bentonville retail behemoth. A mother of two toddlers, she earned headlines and praise early in her campaign for successfully petitioning the state Ethics Commission to allow her to count childcare as a qualified campaign reimbursement. She's running on nuts and bolts issues: infrastructure, economic diversification and schools. Leah Williams, Dotson's Democratic opponent in 2014, also had Walmart ties and appeared poised to give Dotson a good run. She failed to get 30
House District 22
Rep. Mickey Gates (R) vs. Kevin Rogers (D)
- Rep. Mickey Gates
Here's a depressing headline we're afraid is going to be making the rounds on Nov. 7: "GOP legislator charged with multiple felonies wins re-election." Kevin Rogers, the Democratic challenger, is the owner of Kollective Coffee+Tea in downtown Hot Springs. He's running on protecting Medicaid expansion, reinvesting in public education and investing in renewable energy. His opponent, Republican incumbent Rep. Mickey Gates, was charged earlier this year with six Class D felonies after failing to file state income taxes for 15 years. He's said to owe almost $260,000. Despite the charges and Governor Hutchinson's call to resign, Gates has soldiered on with his campaign. In his two terms in the legislature, Gates has been a reliable supporter and promoter of extremism. In the last general session, he sponsored a bill that would have prevented individuals from changing the gender listed on their birth certificate. It was aimed at transgender people.
House District 11
Rep. Mark McElroy (I) vs. Don Glover (D) vs. Ricky Lattimore Sr. (R)
- Don Glover
Three-term state Rep. Mark McElroy decided earlier this year he didn't want to be a Democrat anymore. He didn't like being told how to vote by the caucus, especially when he felt like the interests of the party and his district in Southeast Arkansas were at odds. He's also anti-abortion. But, "I'm too poor to be a Republican," he told columnist Steve Brawner, explaining that Republicans' policies cater to the 1