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story.lead_photo.caption Denise Garner, the winner of the House District 84 race, gets a hug Tuesday from Greg Leding, who was elected to the state Senate’s District 4 seat, during a watch party at Farrell’s Lounge in Fayetteville. Garner defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Charlie Collins. - Photo by Andy Shupe

Democrats picked up two state House seats in the traditional Republican stronghold of Northwest Arkansas, offsetting Republican gains elsewhere in the state.

Democrats also held on to Fayetteville's state Senate District 4 by a wide margin, denying the state GOP one of its few pickup opportunities left in that chamber.

Democratic wins

(final though unofficial)

House District 84

Denise Garner (D): 7,456 (55%)

Rep. Charlie Collins (R): 6,016 (45%)

House District 89 (including provisional ballots counted Wednesday)

Megan Godfrey (D): 1,859 (50%)

Rep. Jeff Williams (R): 1,830 (50%)

Senate 4

Rep. Greg Leding (D): 18,305 (61%)

Dawn Clemence (R): 11,496 (39%)

All three of those Democratic victories came in Washington County. Republicans in the eight other legislative races in the rest of that county and Benton County won by wide margins.

Based on Tuesday's election results, the state House of Representatives will have 76 Republicans and 24 Democrats and the Senate will have 26 Republicans and nine Democrats in the session starting Jan. 14.

After the 2016 election, the House had 73 Republicans and 27 Democrats, but then three Democrats switched parties, boosting the GOP ranks to 76 and cutting the Democrats' number to 24. The Senate had 26 Republicans and nine Democrats in the 2017 session.

Republican Party state chairman Doyle Webb noted Democrats didn't change the pro-Republican split in the House or in the Senate despite being a Democratic "wave year" election with Republicans nationwide losing more than 30 seats in the U.S. House.

"The 'blue wave' was more of a trickle," Webb said.

Republicans made gains overall in county government and other local races, showing Republican success in state races is taking root, Webb said.

Yet Democratic candidate Denise Garner's convincing victory against incumbent Rep. Charlie Collins in Fayetteville's District 84 state House race drew a line on how far Republicans can go with their majority, said Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville. Leding won the District 4 state Senate race. Garner's win more than any other will encourage Democrats, he said.

Collins made himself a lightening rod for Democratic opposition, Leding said, by pushing through a controversial bill allowing concealed carry permit holders to bring their weapons onto state college and university campuses if they get additional training. The Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America group, which advocates for safety against gun violence, became Collins' particularly formidable opponents, Leding said.

"Charlie had to be defeated for them to make any progress in their cause," Leding said of the Moms Demand Action group. "They had to show that overreach has electoral consequences." That's how Collins' defeat draws a line even though the GOP majority still stands, Leding said.

District 84

Garner unseated four-term incumbent Collins, who said Wednesday: "Congratulations to Denise. She ran a great race and beat me."

Garner lost her voice election night and asked her campaign manager, Dustin Seaton, to comment on her behalf Wednesday, Seaton said.

The Moms Demand Action group's support was invaluable but they were only one of the groups that felt their interests weren't represented by Collins, according to Seaton. "With him, it was 'my way or the highway,'" Seaton said.

Garner's campaign strategy included frequent "meet and greets" where Garner could have one-on-one conversations with as many district voters as possible. Those meetings drew a contrast with Collins, he said.

Garner, a long-time organizer of nonprofit groups and cooperative efforts, "was gold in that campaign," Seaton said. "I don't know how many times were phone banking and a name would come up of someone who was conservative and she would say 'I know him. He was on our tennis team' or 'I served on a committee with him.'"

District 89

One-on-one contact by either her or a campaign volunteer was also the key strategy of her race, Democrat Megan Godfrey said. The first-time candidate defeated Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Springdale, in his bid for a second term in downtown Springdale's District 89.

Williams, a former county assessor, didn't return phone calls Wednesday.

Godfrey led with 30 votes in final but unofficial results Tuesday night, 1,857 to 1,827. Provisional ballots counted Wednesday added three votes to Williams' total and two to Geoffrey's for a net change of one vote in Williams' favor. Only two overseas military ballots remain uncounted that apply to this race, the Washington County Election Commission found in reviewing results Wednesday.

District 89 in downtown Springdale is one of the most diverse in the state, both Godfrey and Williams have said. It has long-time residents of Springdale and recent immigrants who speak Spanish as their first language along with Marshall Islanders who came to the area for jobs.

Door-to-door campaigning was needed to show each of those voters they all had things in common with each other and she had something in common with almost all of them, Godfrey said. Godfrey is a mother and educator and a self-described "Springdale girl" who also speaks fluent Spanish.

Godfrey also had a campaign manager, Dwayne Bensing, who grew up in Springdale "and kept a 23-tab spreadsheet of voters and what we should do about each of them," she said. "He referred to it throughout the campaign. He was even checking it during the victory party."

The night before the election, "we put 500 sticky notes on doors reminding people to go vote," Godfrey said. "That could be where our 30 [winning] votes came from."

Senate 4

Leding defeated first-time candidate and businesswoman Dawn Clemence of Fayetteville, a Republican. Final though unofficial results were 18,305 (61 percent) for Leding and 11,496 (39 percent) for Clemence.

Leding ran to replace retiring incumbent Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville. He took nothing for granted, walking 142 miles door-to-door in the campaign and holding more than 20 "coffee with the candidate" events, he said.

Democrats should benefit from growth in Northwest Arkansas with new voters with more diverse backgrounds coming in, but that's not something that can be taken for granted, Leding said.

Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, expressed relief Wednesday at Leding's election -- more for the fact Leding is an experienced lawmaker as for him being one of the few remaining Democrats. Ingram is the Democratic leader in the Senate.

Lindsey is one of the most experienced lawmakers in the Senate, Ingram said, and leaves big shoes to fill. "Think of the knowledge he has, not just of Northwest Arkansas but of the budget and how government works," Ingram said of Lindsey.

Leding is one of the the most experienced members of the House with a proven record of being able to work with Republicans, Ingram said.

Campaign factors in common

Northwest Arkansas Democrats ran very good campaigns overall and recruited good candidates, but each one had to swim upstream in heavily Republican Arkansas, said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway and an author on Arkansas politics.

Garner's campaign was exceptional, he said: "It's the model of how to run a campaign.

"It had everything: The field work, the media, the social media, everything," he said.

Still, Garner waged her campaign on favorable ground. "That district has changed and is now more of a suburban district" than the largely rural one where Collins campaigned in past years. In many ways, Barth said, House 89 was a smaller version of the suburban congressional districts where Republicans nationally lost their U.S. House majority Tuesday night.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said both Collins and Williams "both had difficult districts and changing districts, and that caught them both." He said Collins has been an extraordinary ally and a leader on state tax policy.

"I guess the biggest story line is the chairman of the Democratic Party met defeat last night in a legislative race, and that goes to show how difficult that position can be and mixing that with your own legislative race," Hutchinson said.

Bald Knob Republican Craig Christiansen knocked off Rep. Michael John Gray of Augusta, who's chairman of the state Democratic Party. The governor said he endorsed Gray's opponent.

Leding campaigned in a district traditionally Democratic although the margin of his win is impressive, Barth said. Godfrey campaigned in a district more diverse and with a lower average income than much of the rest of Northwest Arkansas, he said. Her campaign was impressively well-tailored to the district, he said.

All three benefited from support of the Moms Demand Action group, a group showing both strength and savvy, Barth said.

"The great achievement of Moms Demand Action is that they we able to raise that issue [gun safety] without pushing away people who are concerned about gun rights," Barth said. The biggest contribution of the group was not the issue it raised but the volunteers it organized and the support -- with few liabilities -- it gave candidate.

John Whiteside, political director of the state Democratic Party, made the same point. He called the Moms Demand Action group superbly organized, realistic and clear-sighted.

"They can support a candidate without demanding the campaign take positions that will cost support," Whiteside said. "They show up and say, 'We support you. What do you want us to do?'"

NW News on 11/08/2018

Print Headline: Democrats gain in Northwest Arkansas

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