History in the Making? Primaries Set Up Potentially Groundbreaking ‘22 Vote.
If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. But this year, barring events that would defy logic, Arkansas is expected to swear in a new governor and lieutenant governor, neither of whom will be a white male.
In other words, history will be made.
Term-limited Gov. Asa Hutchinson will pass the symbolic baton, in all likelihood, to either a woman or a Black man. Fellow Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee and former press secretary for the Trump administration, is the frontrunner to replace Hutchinson.
In the Nov. 8 general election, Sanders will face Democrat Chris Jones, the state’s first major-party Black gubernatorial candidate. A Pine Bluff native, Jones is an ordained minister who was educated at MIT, worked as a physicist and previously served as executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub.
Another kicker to the 2022 governor’s race in Arkansas: Neither major party candidate has held office before.
Sanders, of course, has lived a political life, but she’s never been elected to office. Nor has Jones.
Ricky Dale Harrington Jr., who is also African American, is carrying the Libertarian banner in the gubernatorial race. And while Harrington developed some name recognition in 2020 by challenging U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, as a Libertarian, the race likely is Sanders’ to lose. She disposed of primary challenger Doc Washburn by taking 83% of the vote in the GOP primary.
Jones, meanwhile, won 70 percent of the vote in the five-candidate Democratic primary. Now, the question begs — how close can he make it in November?
So far, polls indicate it won’t be close. The Arkansas gubernatorial race is listed as “safe or solid Republican” by several poll watchers, including Real Clear Politics, Larry Sabato and The Cook Political Report, as well as the Arkansas-based TBP/Hendrix College poll. Such a rating means the race is not expected to be competitive. Remington Research Group on Feb. 27 gave Sanders a 30-point lead over Jones in a prospective general-election matchup. Its poll had Sanders at 58%, Jones at 28%, and Harrington at 3%.
Sanders also holds a fundraising edge, having raised roughly $15 million. The Jones campaign had raised $1.8 million as of mid-May.
Lack of name recognition outside of Central Arkansas represents just one issue for Jones, who is running his first campaign. Robert Coon of Impact Management told Talk Business & Politics earlier this year that the likely ceiling for a statewide Democrat in Arkansas right now is 34% to 36%. Indeed, the state has become one of the deepest red states in the country.
Republicans represent the state’s entire congressional delegation, as well as all of its constitutional officers. The GOP holds 76 of 100 seats in the state House of Representatives and 27 of 35 seats in the state Senate. Arkansans last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996, when native son Bill Clinton ran for re-election.
Ballotpedia reports that 80.4% of Arkansans live in one of the state’s 66 “solid Republican” counties — those counties that voted for the GOP presidential candidate in every election from 2012 to 2020. Eight counties are listed as “solid Democrat” with Woodruff County — whose voters went with Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in ῾16 and ῾20 — considered “trending Republican.”
Meanwhile, the presumptive lieutenant governor-elect is a Sanders ally, who withdrew from the 2022 governor’s race when Sanders entered it. Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge took 54 percent of the vote in a GOP lieutenant governor primary that featured six candidates. The GOP nominee was expected to win election in November, but the fact Rutledge won her primary without a runoff is a testament to her statewide strength.
Rutledge will face another female, Democrat Kelly Krout — who didn’t face a primary opponent — and Libertarian Frank Gilbert in the general election.
The state’s four U.S. House seats are up for re-election, and none of them are expected to have competitive races. GOP incumbents Rick Crawford (First District), French Hill (Second), Steve Womack (Third) and Bruce Westerman (Fourth) seem destined for re-election. The same applies for Arkansas’ senior U.S. senator, Republican John Boozman, who held off three challengers in the GOP primary with 58% of the vote.
Crawford will face Democrat Monte Hodges and independent Roger Daugherty in November; challenging Hill will be Quintessa Hathaway and Libertarian Michael White; Womack is up against Democrat Lauren Mallett-Hays and Libertarian Michael Kalagias; and Westerman’s general-election opponents are Democrat John White and Libertarian Gregory Maxwell.
Elsewhere, Republicans are expected to hold each of the state’s constitutional offices. Current Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin will face Democrat Jesse Gibson to be the next Arkansas attorney general; incumbent Secretary of State John Thurston will be challenged by Democrat Anna Beth Gorman; Republican state Rep. Mark Lowery, who upset state Sen. Mathew Pitsch in the primary, will face Democrat Pam Whitaker for state treasurer; current State Treasurer Dennis Milligan will vie for state auditor against Democrat Diamond Arnold-Johnson and Libertarian Simeon Snow; and incumbent Public Lands Commissioner Tommy Land will face Democrat Goldi Gaines.
In the Arkansas legislature, the party breakdown is not expected to remain dominated by Republicans. Thirty-two open seats are up for election in November. Thanks in part to redistricting, 52 Republican primaries were contested compared to 10 Democratic primaries. Of the 263 major-party legislative candidates filed to run in Arkansas this year, 189 of them were Republicans, according to Ballotpedia.
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