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Midterm Elections Reveal Shifting Patterns in Arkansas (Heather Yates On Politics)

4 min read

Election night in Arkansas was good for Republican incumbents and women candidates. The Arkansas congressional delegation secured re-election and the state government trifecta remained intact with all the constitutional offices and the state Legislature dominated by the GOP. But Democrats also made gains in Republican territory, suggesting shifting voting patterns that could make the party competitive in suburban areas of the state. 

More Women, People of Color Elected
This was an extraordinary year for women candidates, nationally and locally. 

The 2018 elections saw a record number of women running for public office. In Arkansas, the newly elected cohort of 32 women surpasses the record of women serving in office set in 2009. 

There were 45 women running for office in Arkansas, and more than half were elected. Many women were first-time candidates with diverse professional histories. Women now represent nearly a quarter of the state Legislature. Additionally, the black caucus picked up another seat in North Little Rock, which brings the total to 16 people of color serving in the Legislature. 

Surprises and Upsets
There were some surprises and upsets in the state Legislature, and a few high-profile and heated matchups resulted in flipped seats. 

In House District 61, Republican challenger Marsh Davis, by a margin of 118 votes, unseated the incumbent Rep. Scott Baltz. The Democrats offset the loss by picking up two seats in northwest Arkansas. After a tense, highly contentious campaign for state Senate District 4 between the state Rep. Greg Leding, a Democrat, and Dawn Clemence, a Republican, the Democrats won. 

And back in the House, Democrats flipped District 84 in an upset, when Denise Garner defeated NRA-backed Rep. Charlie Collins. Collins was one of the architects of Act 562, which expanded concealed carry permissions and prohibited institutions like universities from opting out. The high-profile campaign drew national attention, and Garner successfully capitalized on voters’ frustrations toward Collins’ work on Act 562, along with health care and tax policy. 

Republicans won a big prize of their own, flipping District 47 to oust incumbent Rep. Michael John Gray — chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. Craig Christensen unseated Gray by less than a 1 percent margin. While the loss is not necessarily a setback for the state party committee, it was an unusual development, and it’s not clear how this might affect party building activities for Arkansas’ once dominant political party. 

So what are the implications? I’ve always recommended that if one wants forecast national trends, watch the states. 

The political landscape is shifting. Election results from the suburban districts in northwest Arkansas suggest that Democrats gained traction with more voters — making traditionally red districts more competitive. 

Nationally, post election analysis shows that Democrats have improved their standing in the suburbs, which, until recently, was firm Republican territory. This national trend is evident in Arkansas, especially in Washington County. There, we’ve seen an increase in younger, working-class professionals with advanced degrees, and people of color.

The movement of those groups into the state’s fastest growing region favors Democrats, as evidenced by more split-ticket voting. Precinct-level data in Washington county showed that in several precincts, voters selected Republicans for Congress and governor, but voted for Democrats in state legislative races. That’s encouraging news for the state Democratic Party, opening an opportunity to cultivate deeper roots. 

Looking to 2020
As the presidential election cycle quickly approaches, there are some things to watch. First: Congress is again a split-party institution. How the House and Senate work together — or not work together — will be an important factor in shaping the political landscape for 2020.

Second: Now that the Democrats are back in control of the House, party leadership is being re-evaluated and a shake-up could happen. 

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s position as party leader may be vulnerable with the arrival a considerably anti-Pelosi freshmen class of lawmakers. The California Democrat signaled she may step aside — but not immediately — and party whip, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, is favored to take over as majority leader. 

If leadership does eventually change hands, it’s an opportunity to define the next generation of leadership. One of the most important factors to be determined is the party’s presidential front-runner. There is still time for a candidate to emerge, but the competitive path to the White House is narrowing, and without indications of a viable alternative, President Trump’s chances at re-election grow stronger. 

Third: Will Republicans continue to back the president, or will internal factions disrupt the fragile party unity? If the president’s coalition weakens, the president could be vulnerable to a primary challenge. This scenario isn’t very likely, but possible, and it wouldn’t be first time a sitting president faced a primary challenge.

These dynamics are important to shaping the conditions of the next presidential campaign. The current political conditions translate into a persistent state of political ambiguity — and anxiety for voters. 

Not much is expected to change before the 2020 presidential contest. Voters are showing signs of fatigue in the current political climate, but they also express optimism toward bipartisanship in a newly split Congress, expressing hope that members can mediate these extremely contentious political conditions ahead of the next cycle.

Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of “The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices,” which is available at Palgrave and Amazon.
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