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The Democratic Party has fielded almost as many candidates for the Legislature from Northwest Arkansas as in the last three elections combined, and for the first time a majority of those candidates are women, filing records show.

Fifteen Democrats filed this year for state House races in districts that include at least some of Benton or Washington County. This triples the number who ran in the last election.

At a glance

Democratic legislative candidates on the ballot in Benton or Washington County:

2012: 8

2014: 4

2016: 5

2018: 16

Source: Staff report

To see how the state filings are going, go here.

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This threefold increase leaves one Republican House member from the region unopposed for re-election: Rep. Clint Penzo of Springdale. Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, also escaped a Democratic challenge, but faces GOP primary opponent Scott Richardson of Bentonville.

By comparison, 10 GOP House candidates from the region faced no major party opposition after winning their primaries in the 2016 election.

In the state Senate, Democrats did not field any candidates against a Republican incumbent in the region in either 2014 or 2016.

This year, the highest-seniority member of the Senate, Cecile Bledsoe, faces Democratic opponent Jon Comstock. Both are from Rogers. Bledsoe is the only senator who resides in either Washington or Benton County who is up for re-election. Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, is not running for another term.

This year's 15 Democratic House candidates include 10 women, records show.

"We are fired up and fed up with the way things are going," Denise Garner of Fayetteville, one of those 10, said in a telephone interview Thursday. Garner is challenging Republican incumbent Rep. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville in the District 84 House race.

Women are fed up with the all-or-nothing positions in both parties and the gridlock it creates, she said.

"Women are more collaborative and willing to work together for the common good," she said.

That type of cooperative approach is needed on every state issue from budgeting through tax policy, health care, education, prisons and anything else, she said.

"If you want something done, find a busy woman," said Celeste Williams, Democratic candidate for District 95 in Bentonville.

A large boon to recruiting candidates in the region was passage of the guns-on-campus bill in the last legislative session, said Will Watson. Watson is vice chairman of candidate recruitment for the Washington County Democratic Party.

"There's been a lot of interest in running for elective office since Jan. 20th" of 2017, inauguration day for President Donald Trump, Watson said. "A lot of people became activists pushing back from the very beginning on the administration's anti-immigrant stance, its position on everything from global warming to tax policy. That's nationwide. What was unique here was the bill allowing guns on campus."

The law that started as Collins' House Bill 1249 allows concealed carry gun permit holders to take their weapons on state college and university campuses, but only after receiving additional training. Passed over the objections of University of Arkansas administrators and campus police and over the protests of many who work at the university, the bill's final, amended version passed 71 to 18 in a largely party-line vote in the House in 2017.

"That's what got mom and grandmothers to stand up and say, 'Look, we're not trying to take your guns, but we do want to make it harder for bad people to get them,'" Watson said.

The result was more than just a boost in people running for office, he and Garner said. Gun safety meetings in the region that used to attract dozens are attracting hundreds now, Garner said.

Collins said he sought the campus carry legislation since he first won election in 2010 and he is proud of the legislation, along with the rest of his record including health care and tax reform. The greater number of Democrats running is part of a major national trend, he said, but he doubts many will win in Arkansas.

"There's no question that the left wing is very energized across the country," he said. Every single state lawmaker seat in North Carolina, for instance, has a Democrat running for it, he said.

Arkansas Republicans have been more pragmatic than their peers in other states, Collins said, which will help them avoid partisan backlash in the upcoming elections.

Democrats in Congress passed health care reform when they were in power in 2010. Republican majorities in many states, including Texas and Alabama, reacted with defiance, refusing to enact state programs that were part and parcel of the Democratic plan.

"Republicans in other states stuck their chins out, went 'humph' and refused to do anything on health care," Collins said. This resulted in those states' residents paying the higher taxes mandated by the federal program while not receiving the benefits, such as expansion of the Medicaid program, that required state-by-state approval.

"The Republican Party of Arkansas did not fall into that trap," Collins said. It did not accept the program as designed, either. The state Legislature crafted a plan that used Medicaid expansion taxpayer money to subsidize private health care coverage. It also convinced federal regulators to approve the plan and grant the waivers needed to implement it.

"We worked for the good of the public, not for partisan interests," Collins said. Arkansas Republicans showed the same pragmatic attitude in granting state income tax relief and in economic development, he said.

The fact that the wave of Democratic candidates in Northwest Arkansas is largely women is not as notable, Collins said, as the fact they are younger. There has been a definite changing of the guard in the Democratic Party in Arkansas, and that is to their benefit, he said.

"It reminds me of Republicans in 2010, when youthful Republicans came forward," he said.

Democrats, particularly women, are not going away even if Republicans hold on to their legislative seats, Garner said.

"If we aren't in the chambers themselves, we're going to be out in the halls," she said.

Statewide, Democrats are down to 24 out of 100 House seats. Democratic nominees must convince voters to turn out incumbents in the majority party.

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, knows how that feels. Lundstrum was active in GOP party politics when Republicans faced long odds against a Democratic majority. The GOP only attained a House majority in the 2012 election. Now Lundstrum faces a Democratic challenger for the first time in her political career. Kelly Scott Unger of Siloam Springs is running against her, and so is Justin Jones of Elm Springs, a Libertarian.

"This is how the process works," Lundstrum said. "I can understand why Democrats are upset. I perfectly get that. I feel very strongly about pro-life issues and know what it was like when the party in power does not feel as strongly as you do about something you feel very strongly about. So you get out there and work to change things."

Lundstrum is glad more women are running, she said, but warned gender can be overemphasized.

"I'm tired of everybody being put into a box," she said. "Even I've heard the argument that we need to put more women in office. I've had to reply, 'Uh, look at me. Do I not fit that category?' You should look at any candidate's qualifications and whether their views fit the district."

Bledsoe said Friday in a separate interview women do, as a group, bring at least one needed perspective into the Legislature. Beyond the historical role of being primarily responsible for caring for children, women are more and more assuming the role of taking care of elderly family members, she said. Bledsoe is chairwoman of the Senate Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

"The perspectives of both men and women are needed. I want to emphasize that," Bledsoe said. "We need both. But what we need most are citizen legislators who represent the views of the constituents who elect us. We need people who truly represent their voters on issues like taxes, economic development, transportation and roads, and on social issues like questions about abortion."

She does not believe Democrats will make large gains this year because of core disagreements on those issues with voters.

Grimsley Graham of Rogers ran for Rogers' House District 94 in 2014 and 2016. His race was touted by the Democratic Party in 2014 as one of their best opportunities to flip a seat. He had a higher percentage of the vote in his district than any other Democrat legislative candidate running in the region in those years, but still fell short. He said Thursday the election this year is unpredictable.

"The winds keep changing, blowing from all sorts of directions," Graham said. "It's not like you can lick your finger, hold it up in the wind and tell anything. Nationally, it looks like a Democratic wave is happening but it's only March.

"I don't think that so many of these candidates being women is as big an advantage for them as how they are younger and so articulate," Graham added.

The real test of whether the Democrats stand a chance will come long after the candidate filling period, which closed last week, Graham said. To succeed, Democrats or any voters who want change will have to sustain their interest into the next election and beyond it, he said.

"That's why I think its important that we've attracted such good candidates," he said. "They have a future ahead of them and can lead the party for years."

NW News on 03/04/2018

Print Headline: Democratic filings surge

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