LITTLE ROCK — With contested primaries for five statewide offices, two congressional seats and about two dozen legislative posts, Arkansas Republicans ended the filing period last week with a clear sign of how much the political landscape has changed in the state.
Democrats, however, are hoping it’s a sign of the headaches and internal divisions to come for the GOP.
By the time the one-week filing period for state and federal offices ended last Monday, Democrats were facing only a handful of contested primaries for the Legislature and one for statewide office. Republicans, meanwhile, have crowded primaries throughout the ballot on May 20.
It’s a major shift for a state where Democrats once were so entrenched that the party primaries effectively acted as the general election. It also comes four years after a series of bitter nomination fights left the party bruised heading into a general election where Republicans made major gains.
The cleared fields for the state’s top offices was no accident, say state Democratic leaders, who sought to avoid bruising primary battles as they try to rebound from recent losses at the federal and state level.
"We worked really, really hard at trying to not have primaries and trying to bring communities together in different areas and let people talk about who was going to run rather than have divisive primaries on our side, so we could focus on the general," state Democratic Chairman Vince Insalaco said.
The only contested primary for Democrats on the statewide or congressional level is an unexpected — and lopsided — fight that pits former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross against Little Rock substitute teacher Lynette Bryant. Ross has already secured the backing of the state’s Democratic establishment, including Gov. Mike Beebe, and is already being treated by Republicans as the nominee-in-waiting.
Republicans, however, have no shortage of primary fights on the way. Aside from the governor’s race, where former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson enjoys a fundraising and organizational advantage over Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman, the GOP has six high-profile contested primaries on the statewide and congressional level.
The primary battles for lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, auditor and congressional seats in south and central Arkansas show just how much the party has changed over the past two election cycles. It’s no small feat for a GOP that six years ago was unable to find someone to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, now identified as the party’s top target this fall.
"We would say that Arkansas is realigning from a traditionally Democratic state to a Republican state just as we have throughout the South," state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said, "which has resulted in more people to choosing to run as a Republican than a Democrat."
The primaries also show how much more strategically Republicans are eyeing the top races. Eight Republicans vied for the nomination to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln four years ago, while the party didn’t field any candidates for three of the seven constitutional offices. Then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman won the party’s Senate nomination and went on to win Lincoln’s seat.
This time around, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton is the only Republican challenging Pryor and the GOP is running candidates for all constitutional offices.
But the primaries could also highlight splits within the Republican Party, divisions that Democrats are eager to highlight. Most of the divide centers around the "private option" compromise Medicaid expansion that was reauthorized last week. The plan to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor is guaranteed to be a factor in several GOP races throughout the ballot.
For now, the primaries offer hope to both parties.
"I think it’s a bit of both. It’s a bit of the Republican Party being increasingly a nomination worth having," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College. "I do think there is some Democratic discipline about trying to go ahead and take care of things now to keep them more unified going forward."
The test will come in November whether Democrats’ hopes for a unified front can match Republicans’ hopes for an energized party.