LITTLE ROCK — Both Democrats and Republicans have plenty on the line as they kick off the 2012 campaign with the start of the filing period in Arkansas this week.
Democrats are trying to rebound from a 2010 election where they lost control of the state’s congressional delegation, while Republicans are trying to reach a long-sought goal of a majority in the state Legislature.
The playing field for that fight will become clearer on Thursday, as hundreds of candidates for office fill the state Capitol to make their bids official. The one-week filing period for legislative, congressional and presidential candidates begins at noon that day.
With no statewide candidates and a presidential race that has so far ignored Arkansas, much of the focus will be on the four congressional districts and the 135 legislative seats that will be up this year. After the state’s legislative boundaries were redrawn, all 100 state House and 35 state Senate seats will be on the ballot this year.
State Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said he believes the party is in a strong position to grow its majority in the Legislature, as the party prepares for this year’s election. Democrats hold 54 of 100 seats in the state House and 20 of 35 seats in the state Senate.
After a 2010 election where Republicans made gains in legislative races by tying opponents to President Barack Obama — who remains deeply unpopular in the state — Democrats are eager to shift the focus back to state issues, Bond indicated.
"What we’re talking about in our state races is the qualifications of our candidates," Bond said. "The Arkansas Democrat brand has an incredible history."
Democrats say they expect to field candidates in about 70 of 100 House races, with 11 contested primaries expected. In the Senate, they expect to field candidates in 26 of the 35 Senate races, with 11 contested primaries.
Republicans say they expect to compete in 70 House races, with six contested primaries in that chamber. In the Senate, they expect to field candidates in 25 races with five contested primaries there so far.
State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said he believes the party has a realistic shot at winning control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
"I believe realistically from the mood of the public, from the policies of Barack Obama and some polling and other verifications around that we’ve had around the state we feel that the Arkansas voter is ready to make a dramatic change," Webb said.
Candidates for the state’s four congressional districts will also be among those lining up to make their bids official this week. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross’ decision to not seek re-election for his 4th district seat in south Arkansas has raised Republican hopes that they can control all four of the state’s congressional districts.
Four Republicans — John Cowart, Tom Cotton, Beth Ann Rankin and Marcus Richmond — have announced bids for Ross’ seat and Webb said he believes the field is likely settled in that race. Most of the attention has focused on Rankin, who Ross defeated in his 2010 re-election bid, and Cotton, who has led in fundraising among the GOP contenders for the seat.
State Sen. Gene Jeffress and D.C. Morrison, who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate two years ago, have both said they’re running for the Democratic nomination for Ross’ seat. But neither has reported raising any money for the race.
Ross has said he’s disappointed that more candidates haven’t stepped forward, and Bond said he expected one more Democrat to join the field.
Democrats aim to regain one or both of the two congressional seats they lost in the 2010 election — the 1st in east Arkansas and the 2nd in central Arkansas. State Rep. Clark Hall and Arkansas State University economist Gary Latanich have both announced bids to run for the Democratic nomination to challenge freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford.
Though Democrats have struggled to find a candidate in the 2nd district to challenge freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, Bond says he expects former state Rep. Jay Martin to enter the race. Martin, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2006, has said he is preparing for a potential bid but didn’t return a call Friday about the race.
The reliably Republican 3rd District race in northwest Arkansas will likely end up pitting Republican Congressman Steve Womack against Democrat Ken Aden. Neither is expected to face a primary challenger in May.
The filing period may also offer a hint of how much Arkansas will figure into a still-fluid Republican presidential race. Though the Legislature’s decision in 2009 to move the presidential primary back to May initially appeared to keep the state out of play. But the possibility of a drawn-out fight for the GOP nomination means that the state could still play a role in the contest.
Webb said Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns have all told the state party they intend to file to appear on the ballot in Arkansas.