LITTLE ROCK — Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, was first in line Thursday as the heated fight for control of Arkansas’ Legislature and congressional delegation formally kicked off with the start of the one-week filing period to run for office.
Candidates started making their bids official at the state Capitol shortly after Secretary of State Mark Martin whacked a gavel to kick things off.
Meeks, who’s seeking a second term from District 46, was the first in line to have Martin stamp his paperwork after he said he passed up another Republican, Duane Neal, who hopes to become a state representative in northwest Arkansas.
"Going through the process before, I knew exactly what I needed to do and just happened to leapfrog him on that," Meeks said.
Most of the focus will be on the state’s legislative and congressional races, with no major statewide races on the ballot this year. By the end of the first day, 197 people had filed to run for office.
All 135 House and Senate seats will be up this year after redistricting, as well as the four congressional seats. State Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said he expected to increase Democrats’ margins in the Legislature.
"The Arkansas Democrat brand is strong because of responsible leadership and a history of responsible leadership that I don’t think people get reminded of enough," Bond said.
State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said the party was poised to take control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
"It won’t be a slight majority," Webb said. "It won’t just be 18 and 51. We’ll have a greater majority in either house."
The boundaries of at least one legislative seat, however, may remain up in the air. State Sen. Jack Crumbly and state Rep. Keith Ingram on Thursday filed to run for the Democratic nomination for an east Arkansas Senate seat that is the subject of a lawsuit filed by Crumbly and other residents.
The lawsuit claims that the board in charge of legislative redistricting diluted the black vote in Crumbly’s district. It is scheduled to go to trial in May.
Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford was among the first to file Thursday as he faces a challenge from Democrats. State Rep. Clark Hall and Arkansas State University economist Gary Latanich are expected to file for the Democratic nomination for Crawford’s east Arkansas seat.
Crawford said he’s not worried about new congressional boundaries that add historically Democratic areas to his district.
"We’ve got to assume they’re all tough and don’t take anything for granted," he said.
State Sen. Gene Jeffress, who’s seeking a congressional seat in south Arkansas, also was on hand to file. Jeffress is one of two Democrats who’ve announced they’re running for the seat being vacated by Democratic Congressman Mike Ross. Three Republicans are expected to file for the seat, and Bond has said he expects at least one more Democrat to announce.
Jeffress, who hasn’t reported raising any money for the seat, said he still expected to run a "viable" campaign.
"We are not going to be able to raise those millions of dollars," he said.
The start of the filing period also offered a glimpse of a presidential contest that has largely ignored Arkansas, which will hold its primary in May. The campaigns for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum filed the paperwork on Thursday.
Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart, who used to work for Mike Huckabee and Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin, said it’s possible all the candidates could come to Arkansas if the race stretches out.
Webb said he also expects GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to file paperwork. GOP presidential hopefuls have to pay a $25,000 filing fee to the state party to appear on the ballot.