While results from Arkansas’s primary elections last week are still not final, they are cemented enough for some analysis of the numbers. A few observations:
1) The continued demise of the (Democratic) primary. Certain enclaves of the state showed intensity regarding primary season, but it lacked the statewide energy of primaries of the not-that-distant past. Overall, participation in primaries has shrunk from approximately 380,000 voters in the 2010 election cycle to 310,000 last week. Increasingly, Arkansas voters see the real action as taking place in a November general election. Turnout did vary wildly across the state from three counties with single-digit percentage turnout rates (two Delta counties and Union County in the south) to several rural counties with primaries involving well-known candidates locally exceeding 40 percent (the Delta’s Lee County, with an intense state representative race front-and-center, led the pack with 45 percent turnout).
Just as importantly, the partisan skew of primary participation has continued to trend in a Republican direction with GOP participation increasing from just under 150,000 voters in 2010 to just at 180,000 in 2014 to just over 200,000 voters this year and statewide Democratic participation plummeting from 334,665 in 2010 to just over 100,000 this year. The result is that, as late as 2010, about 70 percent of primary voters chose a Democratic ballot, but in 2018, just under two-thirds asked for a GOP ballot. That is tangible evidence of the realignment in Arkansas politics that has taken place. Only renewed Democratic success in statewide elections will rehabilitate interest in the party’s primary.
A real beneficiary of low turnout was Democratic 2nd District Congress nominee Clarke Tucker. Pre-election polling from Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College showed Tucker with particular strength among older, better-educated consistent participants in Democratic primaries. That is who showed up last week and aided Tucker in his surprisingly strong primary win.
2) Supply meets demand. As the filing period closed, I noted the dramatic uptick in “outsiders,” candidates representing groups that too often have been left out of Arkansas politics, who had filed in Democratic primaries. The key question was whether voters — the “shoppers” who make choices about electoral “products” — would be as keen on supporting these candidates when given the chance. The answer from May 22 was a fairly resounding yes, particularly when it came to women candidates.
In several key races, gender mattered. The most telling examples were in two closely matched Democratic primaries for the state House in the two most socially progressive districts in the state. In a Little Rock district centered in the Hillcrest neighborhood, Tippi McCullough gained a solid victory over environmental attorney Ross Noland, while in downtown Fayetteville progressive attorney Nicole Clowney thumped a veteran vote getter — Fayetteville City Council member Mark Kinion — with a campaign that more than any in the state’s history focused on the need for more women in public office.
It also mattered in Terri Hollingsworth’s surprisingly easy win for the Pulaski County Clerk nomination (she does face a GOP opponent). If elected, Hollingsworth would join Sheriff-elect Eric Higgins who, in the local upset of the evening, beat a candidate backed by popular incumbent “Doc” Holladay, as the first African-American officeholders in well over a century in the county. Most interestingly, while Higgins and Hollingsworth ran up overwhelming majorities in predominantly African-American precincts, they also performed solidly in (and often won) majority white precincts, showing Democratic voters’ desire for candidates who visibly reflect their outsider status.
3) That Mysterious Race for SUPCO. The race that no one could confidently prognosticate was the three-way race for Supreme Court justice. Though we now know the two candidates who will advance to the runoff — incumbent Justice Courtney Goodson and GOP activist David Sterling — the results from May 22 and the ultimate winner remain a mystery.
A quick regression analysis of voting patterns across the 75-county results shows that the big surprise, considering Sterling’s GOP allegiances, is that Goodson over-performed in counties with high rates of GOP primary participation while Sterling did worse in heavy GOP counties. It’s unclear because of Arkansas’s “quirky” (to be nice) judicial election laws whether any of these patterns matter for November, as Goodson and Sterling will go head-to-head in an electorate that is decidedly larger and differently composed from this May electorate.
Remarkably, the two large and fast-growing counties in Northwest Arkansas had tiny turnout rates: Benton (12 percent) and Washington (14 percent). They are monsters that will roar in November and they were a big problem in her race for chief justice two years ago. Sterling must overcome some history of his own, as it’s been nearly three decades since a candidate without “judge” or “justice” in front of his or her name on the ballot has won a spot on the Supreme Court. In 1990, Robert Brown eked out a win by just over 1,000 votes in a bruising race. All signs are that this fall’s race between Goodson and Sterling will match that contest blow-for-blow.