In this file photo stickers for early voters sit in a container Friday during early voting in the primary election at the Benton County clerk’s office in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)
Benton and Washington county voters will decide as many contested primaries in races for the state Legislature this year as they did in the last three elections combined, records show.
Fourteen primary contests for legislative seats will appear on various ballots in Benton and Washington counties on May 24. This compares to three in 2020, four in 2018 and seven in 2016. Seven of this year’s primary winners will face no major party opposition in the general election.
Benton and Washington counties had not had a contested Senate primary since 2016, records show. They will have four this May, all to pick Republican candidates, although most voters in one of those races are in Crawford County.
The region saw two Democratic primaries in a regular legislative race in the last 20 years: one for state House in 2018, one for state Senate in 2010 and both in Fayetteville. Northwest Arkansas will have two this spring, both for House seats and neither in Fayetteville.
Increased filings was the case statewide. In legislative races, across Arkansas, voters will see more Republican primary elections this spring than general elections with candidates from both major parties in November. GOP candidate filings again surpassed Democrats.
A total of 446 candidates filed to put their names on the ballot for 2022 elections, which is the highest number for any election year without a presidential race since at least 1980, according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette archives and information from the secretary of state’s office.
The rise in competitive legislative elections in Northwest Arkansas stems from multiple causes. For one, there are more seats to fill.
Benton and Washington counties between them gained a new state Senate seat and three House seats from the redrawing of legislative boundaries last year. The state redrew those boundaries after the U.S. census of 2020 to equalize populations.
Beyond the number of chairs to fill, candidate filings show multiple districts with multiple candidates. The most contested state House or Senate seat in Arkansas, for instance, is for Benton County’s brand-new House District
13. No other legislative race in the state has four candidates vying for their party’s nomination in one primary, filing records show. Whoever wins that seat’s Republican primary will face a Democrat in the general election.
Redistricting is the first and most obvious cause for the increase in contested primaries, but not the only one, said Janine Parry, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Three of the region’s five state senators are not running for reelection. Three House members decided to run for those open Senate seats, leaving their House districts with no incumbents. Another House member is running for Benton County’s new Senate seat. Two more House members decided against running for reelection after drastic boundary changes to their districts.
“Incumbency is a real advantage, especially in down ballot races like the state legislative posts,” Parry said. “So, when there’s no incumbent, aspirants are more likely to throw a hat in the ring.”
This is the first election taking place after both a redrawing of district boundaries and the 2014 extension of term limits. Those factors combined to encourage candidates to run now, Parry said.
Arkansas used to have one of the most restrictive term limits laws in the country, according to the National Association of State Legislatures. From 1992 to 2014, state House members were limited to three, two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms. Term limits were extended by popular vote in 2014, allowing lawmakers to serve a total of 16 years, whichever chamber or chambers they serve in.
Before 2014, “it wasn’t hard to just wait a same-party incumbent out,” Parry said. “Now that term limits are longer, potential candidates may not be as interested in waiting their turn.”
The contested Democratic primaries — two out of the seven races with Democrats running — probably results from candidates competing for the few seats in which Democrats can compete, Parry said.
The state House, for instance, has 22 Democrats out of 100 members.
Republicans used to be selective when the Democratic Party was the majority in the state, Parry said.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Democratic aspirants are now doing the same. Where do they stand a chance for the next 30 to 40 years? A handful of neighborhoods in the state’s bigger cities,” she said.
Redistricting gave Benton County Senate District 34 in the north-central area of the county. Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, chose not to file for reelection and filed for the Senate instead. He faces Mayor Peter Christie of Bella Vista in the Republican primary. The winner will face Libertarian candidate J.P. DeVilliers in the general election.
Meanwhile Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Sulphur Springs, decided not to seek reelection in what is now Senate District
35. His sister, Rep. Gayla Hendren McKenzie of Gravette, announced she will run there. She faces businessmen Tyler Dees of Siloam Springs and Jeff Tennant of Gravette in the Republican primary. The winner will face Libertarian candidate Doug Petersen.
Rep. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, also left a House seat to run for a Senate vacancy. Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, did not run again. Businessman Jim Tull of Rogers decided to oppose Bryant for the seat in District 32 in eastern Benton County. The winner will have no announced opposition in November.
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, faces no opposition in either the primary or the general election.
In Washington County, residents in Senate District 31 in Springdale will decide who will serve as their third state senator in 15 months.
Rep. Clint Penzo of Spring-dale, pastor Andrew Thompson and former Tontitown Mayor Paul Colvin Jr. face each other in the Republican primary for District 31. The winner will face Democrat Lisa Parks in November.
Sitting Sen. Colby Fulfer, R-Springdale, took office Feb. 22 after winning a Feb. 8 special election to replace Sen. Lance Eads, R-Spring-dale. Eads resigned Oct. 28 to take a job with a lobbying firm. Fulfer decided against running again despite being eligible. Parks came within 34 votes of defeating Fulfer in the special election. This year’s election winner will take office when the Legislature convenes in January, less than a year after Fulfer took office.
Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, remained unopposed after candidate filing closed Tuesday in District 30.
Another Republican primary for Senate will appear on ballots in eastern and southern Washington County, Senate District 29, but that district includes all of Crawford County and all registered candidates running in it are from Crawford County.
Benton County House
McKenzie’s decision to run for the Senate left open the House seat in extreme northwestern Arkansas’ District 12. This led to a three-candidate Republican primary there. McKenzie’s sister Hope Hendren Duke, a Gravette School Board member, will face fellow board member Jay Oliphant and Jason Maxwell, a Realtor who lives near Gravette. The winner will face D. Michael Gill of the Libertarian Party in November.
Dotson’s decision to run for Senate left open House District 10 in Bentonville and Centerton. Republican National Committee member Mindy McAlindon faces no primary opposition there, but will face Kate Schaffer, a Democrat, in November.
Political newcomer Brit McKenzie (no relation to Gayla McKenzie), a Republican and businessman, is unopposed in eastern Benton County’s House District
7. That seat was left open by Bryant’s bid for the Senate. Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville, is also unopposed for reelection in House District 8. So are Rep. Delia Haak, R-Gentry, in southwestern Benton County’s District 17, and first-term Rep. Kendon Underwood, R-Cave Springs, in District 16 in south-central Benton County.
Benton County’s House District 14 is another new district. Former state Rep. Grant Hodges of Centerton — who was serving his third term in the House when he resigned in 2020 — is making a comeback bid there, facing no opposition in the Republican primary. He faces attorney Brian Eaton, a Democrat, in November.
The four Republican primary candidates in the heavily contested House District 13 race are: Bentonville City Council member Aubrey Patterson, attorney Greg Payne of Bentonville, engineer Scott Richardson of Bentonville and businesswoman Denise Bugos of Cave Springs. The winner will face attorney Jen Stander-fer, a Democrat, in November.
Rep. John Carr, R-Rogers, is unopposed in the primary, for District 15 in Rogers, but faces Democrat Rachel Cox in November.
Washington County House
Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, decided against running for reelection after her district’s borders were changed, splitting her downtown Springdale district and adding some of Benton County to it. Godfrey’s supporters criticized the changes creating House District 11 as a gerrymander during the redistricting process. Spring-dale businesswoman Rebecca Burkes and Robert Fair, also of Springdale, face each other in the Republican primary there. The winner will face Rey Hernandez of Rogers, a Democrat and former chairman of the Arkansas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The changes to Godfrey’s district were needed to create a majority Hispanic district in Springdale, defenders of the boundary change said. Creating such a district was a goal, they said. That majority Hispanic district is House District 9 in eastern Springdale. Democrat Diana Gonzales Worthen will face Republican DeAnna Hodges in the November election, along with Steven Stilling, a Libertarian.
The district Penzo is leaving for his Senate race is House District 19 in central and western Springdale and Tontitown. Steve Unger of Springdale, a retired U.S. Navy captain who made the Jan. 11 Republican primary runoff with Fulfer in the special Senate election, is the Republican in the race. The primary there is between Democrats Richard Billingsley and Paula Irwin.
Two Democrats want to unseat Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, in House District 18: Hunter Vick and Monique Jones. Lundstrum faces no primary opposition. Lundstrum’s district west of Springdale no longer includes Siloam Springs.
Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, is unopposed in District 20, as is Rep. Nicole Clowney, also D-Fayetteville. Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, will run against the winner of the Republican primary between appraiser Brian Hester and Realtor Don E. McNaughton in District 22, which includes Farmington and parts of Fayetteville. Hester ran against Whitaker in 2020.
House District 23 in rural southwestern Washington County is new. Three Republicans and no Democrats are running there. The three Republicans are Washington County Justice of the Peace Jim Wilson, businessman Byron Suggs and Lincoln School District board member Kendra Moore.
House District 25 starts in Washington County and extends all the way through eastern Crawford County into Franklin County. Both candidates in the Republican primary there are from Washington County: Jody Harris, a Fayetteville businesswoman, and Chad Puryear of near Hindsville, a special education teacher in the Huntsville School District. Democrat Caitlin Oxford has no primary opposition. This is the district where Rep. Bruce Coleman, R-Mountainburg, lives. He decided against running for reelection.
Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, is running for reelection in District 24, which includes a portion of southwestern Washington County. Her Republican primary challenger is Christie Robertson. The winner will face no opposition in November.
There were 218 Republicans, 94 Democrats, 48 Libertarians, seven independents, seven write-ins and 72 candidates for nonpartisan judicial offices.
Republican Party of Arkansas Chairwoman Jonelle Fulmer said the party saw a record number of candidates seek to run for state and federal offices during the filing period, which ran from Feb. 22 to Tuesday.
“It’s obvious that our principles are truly representative of the state,” she said in a statement last week. “I look forward to a busy primary season and an overwhelmingly Red Arkansas in November.”
All 135 seats in the Legislature are up for election this year because of redistricting — the decennial process of redrawing the areas that members represent — but only 48 of those races will have candidates from both major parties. There are 26 sitting Republican legislators who will face primary challengers in their reelection bids, and there will be 51 Republican legislative primaries in total.
“I think that really is probably where the competitive racing is and where money and attention will go,” Republican political consultant Robert Coon said.
He added that it was too soon to tell which Republican incumbents in the Legislature might be vulnerable to losing to a primary challenger.
Parry said she expected the GOP to maintain its supermajority in the Legislature.
“I suspect we haven’t hit the Republican ceiling in Arkansas, or that the Democrats haven’t yet found the basement,” she said.
Democratic Party of Arkansas strategic director Will Watson said in an interview before the filing period, the party was looking to run candidates in growing and diversifying urban and suburban areas where voters are “fed up” with Republican policies.
Meanwhile, a record number of Libertarians filed to put their names on the ballot. Libertarian Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael Pakko said the party is trying to maintain ballot access by surpassing the 3% threshold of voters for their gubernatorial candidate, Ricky Dale Harrington. Under state law, the party is considered a new political party and gained ballot access by petition.
“Every year we try to improve our game and get more candidates on the ballot,” he said.
Pakko added that the party wants people to get used to seeing Libertarians on the ballot, and to give people a choice in races where there would be no general election opponent otherwise.
There are a total of 199 state and federal offices up for election this year, including the governorship, the other six state constitutional offices, all four seats in the U.S. House, and one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.
All four of Arkansas’ incumbent U.S. House members filed to run for reelection, and all have primary opponents except for U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman. All have Democratic opponents.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman faces three Republican challengers in the primary: Jan Morgan, Jake Bequette and Heath Loftis. All of them have described Boozman as a “RINO,” or Republican in name only.
Coon said that polling has shown Boozman having low favorability numbers — driven by the fact that he keeps an understated profile and that people who aren’t familiar with him may not know who he is or what he stands for — but his numbers among Republicans are still good.
Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.
Do you have a primary to vote in?
This site tells voters their voter registration status and what districts, including legislative districts, they are in:
This site shows which state and judicial candidates are running:
Maps on this site show the recently adopted state legislative districts. The interactive maps available allow a voter to enter an address and see what district the address is in: