Columns » Jay Barth

Primary beneficiaries

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Although its passage went less smoothly than Republican leaders anticipated, the General Assembly voted last week to shift all Arkansas primary elections in 2016 to early March to coincide with the so-called "SEC Primary," a mammoth set of primary elections across the South. This alteration in the election calendar — meant to benefit former Gov. Mike Huckabee and to provide the state greater attention in the nomination process — marks just one in a series of shifts in the timing of Arkansas primary elections across recent decades, almost all tied to the presidential aspirations of Arkansas politicians.

Traditionally, Arkansas's primary elections were a late summer affair, occurring near the end of August with runoffs taking place two weeks later in September. Although it made primaries tests of physical endurance for candidates and their staffs and volunteers, this schedule fit nicely with the life cycle in an agricultural state. Moreover, the series of summer festivals provided perfect venues for the candidates for office to show off their speaking and backslapping abilities. Because the Democratic primary was tantamount to election in almost every nook and cranny of the state, having it only weeks before the general election to simply verify its outcome also made sense.

This changed in the early 1970s. The overhaul of the national Democratic Party's presidential nomination process required primaries or caucuses open to all Democrats and required that delegations be gender-balanced and more generally reflective of the state's population. In 1972, Arkansas's Democrats wanted to be certain that their delegates were seated at the national convention, because Congressman Wilbur Mills had acceded to being drafted for the nomination and needed the delegation as a base of support, so the state ultimately moved the primary to late spring.

This set the late May primary that has been the norm for over 40 years with only a couple of exceptions, also driven by the ambitions of Arkansas political elites. Seeing the importance of enhancing Southerners' voices in the process to elect a moderate Democrat, the Democratic Leadership Conference pushed for a Super Tuesday primary in 1988. One of those moderate Democrats considering a run at the time when the Arkansas General Assembly met in 1987 to make the shift: Arkansas's Bill Clinton. In 2008, another Super Tuesday was set and with Arkansans Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee seeking their respective nominations, participation was seen as positive for them and the state.

As in 1988, the "SEC primary" will shift all primaries (presidential, nonpresidential and judicial) to this exceptionally early date with a filing period concluding around next Thanksgiving. Because Arkansas will be among the smallest states to vote on March 1 and because, as in 2008, Huckabee and Clinton will dominate the contests, little attention from the national press or other candidates will flow to the state.

Who will be the most likely political winners from this latest Arkansas shift?

*The state Republican Party. The state GOP (with presidential filing fees set at $25,000 in 2012) will collect significant fees from candidates who must pay the fee in November, whether or not they are still viable in March. With a more competitive presidential primary than the Democrats', it will also continue the party's momentum in terms of turning out more Arkansas voters than Democrats and in terms of voter data to use in future elections.

*GOP legislative incumbents. Because of the partisan gerrymandering of the Arkansas General Assembly, GOP incumbents are most threatened by primary opponents. The early election will give prospective opponents less time to ramp up a campaign against them.

*Proponents of the private option. The delay of the fiscal session until after the primary means Republicans will not have to vote on the private option before the primary. That will bode well if the expected effort to extend the life of the program is before the General Assembly in the session.

The losers?

*Incumbents in swing districts. While there are relatively few swing districts left in the state legislature (or Congress), the lengthened general election campaign provides more time for challengers — typically outfunded and comparatively limited in name recognition — to build their case.

*Judicial candidates. The quirks of Arkansas's judicial elections means that the top two candidates in crowded fields have a "runoff" in the general election — months after the first primary, with a completely different election and electorate. This promises to make judicial elections costlier and more complicated.

So while the March 1 "SEC primary" is designed to benefit the Huckabee campaign and increase Arkansas's national exposure, on a busy election day that includes much larger Southern state platforms, the bigger impact is more likely to be local.

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