PRIMARY POLLING Arkansas voters look to cast ballots on Tuesday for Democrat, GOP tickets

May 23-29, 2022

By Wesley Brown

Central Arkansas voters will cast their votes in the Democratic and Republican Preferential Primaries on Tuesday (May 24), opening the state to choose the next governor and other down-ballot offices.


While the frontrunners in the race to replace the popular term-limited Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson are already looking past the primary, plenty of other races on the ballot and critical hot button issues ahead will keep voters occupied until the 2022 general election on Nov. 8.


Heather Yates, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, said. Although the gubernatorial race and other statewide offices and congressional races won’t be decided until November, the primaries will still determine a large number of losers and winners.


“While many residents are focused on the top-of-the-ticket races like the governor and the other constitutional offices, this particular primary election cycle is significant because several county-level and state legislative contests will be decided in the May primary instead of the November general election,” said Yates, who will be one of the featured guests at the Political Animals Club post-election lunch on May 25 at the Governor’s Mansion.


“As many as 80% of the races will be determined in the primary. This is because many candidates who win in May won’t have an opponent in the general election,” said the UCA political forecaster. “Of further significance is the school board elections – those contests will be decided by the May primary.”


Still, Yates and other Arkansas political watchers know that the governor’s race will draw all the state and national attention because of the two unique candidates at the top of the ticket. On the Democratic Party ticket, Chris Jones has established himself as the clear frontrunner in fundraising and recent polling. A week before the primary election ended, Jones’ candidacy brought Democrat Party Chair Jaime Harrison to town to raise funds and help push the state’s minority party’s “get out to vote” campaign. 


In a highly watched May 8 survey by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College, nearly 60% of Arkansas voters participating in the Democratic primary plan to support Jones’ campaign for the state’s top office. If the former Innovation Hub executive director and nuclear engineer wins the Democratic primary, he would be the first African American nominated by a major party to seek the governor’s office in Arkansas’ history. 


“On the Democratic side, Chris Jones is the runaway favorite to clinch the party’s nomination for governor, garnering 60% of the vote,” said Robert Coon, managing partner with Impact Management Group, which works with Republican political candidates and helps analyze the latest Talk Business poll. “None of the other potential Democratic contenders even crack 5%. As the only candidate to spend any real dollars on a campaign, Jones leads the field across every demographic group.”


Indeed, heading into the last month of the primary season, Jones has raised over $1.5 million since jumping in the race last June. None of the other Democrats in the race have raised more than $10,000 outside of their own personal funds. They include local businesswoman Supha Xayprasith-Mays, Little Rock native James “Rus” Russell, former state Rep. Jay Martin of North Little Rock, and Anthony Bland, another Hot Springs-based Black candidate. He ran for Lt. Governor in 2018. 


In recent days, Jones has been looking ahead to a possible battle with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Pro-Trump Republican frontrunner with a massive campaign war chest that has set all-time records for fundraising for any state office.


“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to speak to Arkansas voters, to speak up for what we can do to make Arkansas an even better place to call home,” Jones said on May 9. “We take nothing for granted, we know that a strong showing in this primary election is critical to laying the foundation we need to succeed in the general election.”


For Sanders, the former White House spokeswoman for ex-President Donald Trump, the recent Talk Business survey shows that she is well on her way to winning the Republican primary as the GOP nominee for governor. The poll showed 72.3% of primary voters would choose her as their likely candidate for the state’s top office. Her lone challenger, former conservative radio host Doc Washburn, manages only to reach 16.5% in this recent survey.


“Our survey confirms one thing that we have known for a year: Sarah Huckabee Sanders is on her way to being the Republican nominee for governor and, as a result, the strong favorite to be the next governor of Arkansas,” said Dr. Jay Barth, emeritus professor of politics at Hendrix College, who is active in Democratic Party politics and helped craft and analyze the latest poll. 


According to monthly campaign filings with the Arkansas Secretary of State office, Sanders spent more than $834,000 in March and reported having nearly $7.4 million on hand. Since she launched her campaign in early 2021, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has raised more than $14 million, a record for any state race.


But Jones and Huckabee are not the lone candidates in the primary or general election races to replace Hutchinson, the current occupant of the downtown Governor’s Mansion who is term-limited out of office at the end of 2022. In late February, ahead of the state’s campaign filing deadline, seven other gubernatorial aspirants filed as Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, or write-in candidates for the state’s highest public office, including perennial candidate Elvis Presley of Star City.


Down ballot duals


In the GOP primary contest for attorney general, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin is running against former Huckabee aide and former state Labor Department chief Leon Jones of Little Rock. Jones is the brother of Chris Jones, the leading Democratic for governor. 


Either Griffin or Jones will face Democratic candidate and Little Rock attorney Jesse Gibson and write-in candidate Gerhard Langguth. The winner in November will replace the term-limited Leslie Rutledge as the state’s next AG.


In one of the most competitive races, six candidates have already filed for the Lieutenant Governor office that Griffin is vacating, including Rutledge. The others include Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway, former GOP Party Chairman Doyle Webb, current Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, businessman Chris Bequette and Judge Joseph Wood of Fayetteville.


In December, AG Rutledge also said she would not jump into the crowded GOP primary race for Arkansas’ next lieutenant governor, a position she expressed she was not interested in after launching her gubernatorial bid in July 2020. Rutledge is the first Republican and woman to serve as attorney general, but is term-limited out of office in January 2023. 


On the Democratic side, Kelly Krout of Lowell is the lone filer for the lieutenant governor’s post. Frank White of White Hall is the Libertarian candidate on the ticket. Also, Sen. Mathew Pitsch and Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle, both Republicans, have also filed to replace term-limited Dennis Milligan as the Arkansas State Treasurer.


In the race for Arkansas Land Commissioner, incumbent Republican Tommy Land and Democrat challenger Darlene Goldi Gaines are running unopposed. Incumbent Secretary of State John Thurston will face opposition against former State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams of Cabot. On the Democratic side, Josh Price of Little Rock is the lone candidate running to oversee state elections and Arkansas corporate business filings.


In the congressional races, several incumbent lawmakers in Arkansas that serve in the U.S. House and Senate will also face competition for congressional seats, all held by the GOP. Arkansas’ four House Republicans include Rep. French Hill of Little Rock, Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers, and Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkadelphia.


Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, has two challengers in the GOP primary for the redrawn 1st District seat. They include state lawmaker Rep. Brandt Smith of Jonesboro and Cherokee Village attorney Jody Shackelford. In Central Arkansas, Rep. French Hill of Little Rock is going against primary challenger Conrad Reynolds of Conway, who he beat handily in 2014.


In Northeast Arkansas, incumbent Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers is running against Neil Kumar, an unknown law student from Bentonville. Fourth District Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkadelphia is unopposed in his primary bid for re-election. All Democrats in the four congressional districts — Rep. Monte Hodges of Blytheville in the 1st, Quintessa Hathaway of Little Rock in the 2nd, Lauren Mallett-Hays of Farmington in the 3rd, John White of Stephens in the 4th — are running unopposed in the primary.


Arkansas’ senior Sen. John Boozman will face the most opponents in the primary, with six Republican and Democrat opponents vying for his seat. In the GOP race, his opponents include Jake Bequette of Little Rock, a former Arkansas Razorback and U.S. Army veteran; Jan Morgan of Hot Springs, who ran for governor against Hutchinson in 2018; and Heath Loftis, a pastor at Park Avenue Missionary Baptist Church in Stuttgart.


On the Democratic Party ticket, the winner of the Republican primary will face former Pine Bluff Alderman Jack Foster, Natalie James of Little Rock, a real estate agent, or Dan Ridge of Bella Vista. Sen. Tom Cotton of Little Rock, Arkansas’ junior member in the U.S. Senate, does not have an opponent but is campaigning in other key races across the country. Some political analysts predict he plans to test the waters for a presidential run in 2024.


Judicial and local races


Three judges are vying for Associate Justice on the state’s highest court, Position 2. They include current Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne, District Court Judge Chris Carnahan of Conway, and Department of Human Services attorney David Sterling of Little Rock. For Associate Justice, Position 2, a former state lawmaker and Circuit Court Judge Gunner Delay of Fort Smith is challenging current Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker. Associate Justice Rhonda Wood is also running unopposed for Position 7 on the state’s high court.


In the only race for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals that covers Pulaski, Perry, and Saline County, District Judge Stephanie Casady of Benton and opponent Wendy Wood of Little Rock are running for the judgeship vacated by Larry Vaught, who is retiring Dec. 31. The district covers Perry, Pulaski and Saline counties.


In Pulaski County, there are three Circuit Court races for judicial positions in District 6. Judge Leon Johnson is running opposed for the Sixth Circuit, a position he has held since 2010. Two local Little Rock attorneys, LaTonya Austin Honorable and Ernest Sanders Jr., are running for the judicial seat as a Pulaski County Circuit judge from Judicial Sub-District 6.1. Since 2010, Judge Wendell Griffen has held this judicial seat, who announced plans to retire in February 2021. 


Pulaski County attorneys Cara Connors and Brenda Stalling are running for the District 6, Division 12, Subdistrict 6.1 seat that longtime Judge Alice Gray vacates upon her retirement at the end of the year.


By the numbers, the busiest campaigning this primary season in Central Arkansas and across the state is for legislative and local judicial, and city positions. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, 311 candidates filed to run in the primary for 100 seats in the Arkansas House and 35 seats in the Senate. 


Republicans Calvin Grogan and Paul Keller are facing off in the primary in the race for Pulaski County sheriff on the local scene. The winner will challenge Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins in the November general election. Higgins was elected as the first Black sheriff in the county’s history in the fall of 2018. 


But by far, the hottest local primary race has been between attorneys Alicia Walton and Will Jones of North Little Rock in the race to replace longtime elected prosecutor Larry Jegley as the Sixth District prosecuting attorney. Jegley first announced plans to step down in May 2021 after serving eight terms and 24 years presiding over Arkansas’ largest judicial district with 47 deputy prosecutors.


That race has received national attention after a political action group funded by billionaire George Soros donated over $100,000 into Walton’s campaign to be the prosecutor for the state district overseeing Pulaski and Perry Counties, including the City of Little Rock. Soros is a Wall Street hedge fund manager who is noted for financially backing liberal and progressive causes, making him a frequent target of varied conservative conspiracy theories.


Although the race for the Sixth District prosecutor is nonpartisan, conservative causes are backing Jones and have targeted Walton as soft on crime as the City of Little Rock has faced a wave of violence and more than a dozen murders in 2022. According to campaign filings, Walton and Jones’ campaigns together have raised over $250,000 to win the prosecutor’s seat.


Although the Little Rock mayoral race is not on the May 24 ballot, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. is still busy campaigning for re-election ahead of the primary. Like the prosecuting attorney’s race, the big issue facing the city’s first Black mayor is concerns about rising crime and public safety. 


Amid the city’s crime wave and Scott’s reelection plans, Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey submitted a resignation letter on May 2. His last day was Friday. Mayor Scott has launched a national search for Humphrey’s replacement. Assistant Chief Crystal Young-Haskins is now serving as interim chief.


To date, Little Rock businessman and auto dealer Steve Landers is also running to be the city’s next mayor in 2023, along with local businessman Greg Henderson. The filing deadline for the mayoral race and other local positions is Aug. 10. The general election for mayor will take place on Nov. 8, and a runoff election is scheduled for Dec. 6, if necessary.  


Photo Captions:


1. The preferential primary for all registered Arkansas voters is Tuesday, May 24. The Arkansas 2022 general election is on Nov. 8. In April, new voter registration cards went to over 237,000 registered Pulaski County voters.


2. On Tuesday, Pulaski County voters will have the choice to vote by absentee ballot, early vote or cast their ballot on election day. Arkansas is one of 15 states that conducts an “open primary” election allowing voters to select the Democratic, Republican or the nonpartisan judicial ballot regardless of their political affiliation.


3. Voters across Central Arkansas and the rest of the state will be casting their ballots in the Arkansas Preferential Primary on Tuesday, May 24. 


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