All four of Arkansas’ U.S. House members to face challengers in 2024

Odell Carr files to run for the position of Arkansas state representative for district 97 as a Democrat at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Odell Carr files to run for the position of Arkansas state representative for district 97 as a Democrat at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Pine Bluff attorney Risie Howard filed for Arkansas' 4th Congressional District on Tuesday, meaning Democrats will challenge the incumbents in all four of Arkansas' U.S. House districts in the 2024 election.

Howard was the last Arkansas Democrat to announce a run for Congress, waiting until the last day of filing. She will challenge Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs. Westerman, a five-term incumbent, filed for reelection last week.

Howard said she planned to support expanding programs to keep youths out of the judicial system.

"I think we have good representation as for personality. I think Bruce Westerman is a nice person," Howard said. "He has town hall meetings and calls people and stuff like that, but I don't like the way he votes."

Tuesday was the last day of the filing period that began Nov. 6, with noon being the deadline for partisan candidates and 3 p.m. the deadline for those filing to run in nonpartisan judicial races.

John White, who ran as a Democrat for Congress in 2022, filed to run as an independent for Arkansas' 4th Congressional District seat on Tuesday.

All four U.S. House incumbents, Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Westerman, have filed to run for reelection.

Democrat Rodney Govens of Cabot, who served in the U.S. Army and has a background working in telecommunications, filed to run for the 1st Congressional District seat held by Crawford. Marcus Jones of Little Rock, a Democrat and retired Army colonel, is challenging Hill in the 2nd District. Democrat Caitlin Draper, a social worker from Fayetteville, is running for the 3rd District seat held by Womack, who is also facing a primary challenge from Republican state Sen. Clint Penzo of Springdale.

Neither of Arkansas' U.S. senators, Republicans John Boozman of Rogers and Tom Cotton of Little Rock, are up for reelection in 2024.

A total of 351 candidates have filed for state and federal offices in Arkansas. Sixteen candidates filed on Tuesday.

In the 100-member state House of Representatives, there will be 50 contested races between Republican and Democrat candidates and two matchups with Republicans facing independents, according to the secretary of state's website.

State Rep. Danny Watson, R-Hope, on Monday became the 12th state House incumbent to announce that he is not seeking reelection in 2024.

He endorsed business owner Arnetta Bradford of Hope to be his successor. Watson represents House District 88, which includes all of Hempstead County and portions of Miller and Howard counties.

Watson, who has served in the House since 2017, said in a news release that "while I know it's time for me to step aside, I believe our district deserves someone who will continue fighting for us."

Along with Bradford, Dolly Henley of Washington and Robert Leslie Bradford of Nashville have filed as Republicans in House District 88.

There will be five contested races between Republican and Democratic candidates in the state Senate, where 18 of the chamber's 35 seats are up for grabs in 2024, according to the secretary of state's website. The other 17 seats will be up for election in 2026.

In total, 133 candidates for state or federal office filed as Republicans, 97 filed as Democrats and three filed as independents, according to the secretary of state's office. In addition, 118 nonpartisan judicial candidates filed.

"It isn't just about the number of candidates that have filed with the Republican Party of Arkansas, though we dominate that conversation, too. We're proud of the quality of the candidates that have filed with us in the past week," Joseph Wood, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said in a statement.

In state legislative races, Republicans fielded 100 candidates for House and filed for the 18 Senate seats that will be on the ballot. Seth Mays, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said the party is close to its peak strength and has pushed to challenge traditional Democratic strongholds in the Delta.

Republicans Robert Thorne Jr. and Gary Tobar filed to run for House District 35, currently held by Democrat Milton Nicks of Marion, who is not seeking reelection.

Republican Tammi Bell filed to run for House District 63 in West Memphis, another traditional blue seat, currently held by Democrat Deborah Ferguson, who is not running for reelection.

"I think it's quite clear that any time a long-time incumbent retires or decides not to run again, that's an opening," Mays said.

Grant Tennille, chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said Democrats will contest 64 state House seats, the most since 2012, the last time Democrats held a legislative majority.

Democrats currently hold only 18 out of 100 seats in the House and six out of 35 Senate seats. Democrats will field a total of 78 candidates for the state House and seven for the Senate.

Tennille said his party's candidate recruitment effort was boosted by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, pointing to the Republican governor's education law, known as the LEARNS Act, and attempts during a September special session to overhaul the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act as fuel for the Democratic base's fire.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

Among its key provisions, the law allows students to use state dollars to attend a private or home school, something Tennille said has offended many Arkansans who take great pride in their local public schools.

"Put simply, the conduct and political arrogance of the supermajority party in this state have led to a stronger position for the Democratic Party and the results speak for themselves," Tennille said.

To break the Republican supermajority, Democrats would have to pick up at least eight seats in the House. That would give them more of a say in the state budget, which requires 75 votes to pass the House.

When asked how Democrats plan to overcome a dominant Arkansas GOP led by Sanders, Tennille knocked on the cheap wooden lectern the party used for its Tuesday's news conference, a dig at the purchase by the governor's office of a $19,000 lectern that has prompted a legislative audit.

But Will Watson, the strategic director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, admitted it will take more than just some bad press for Sanders for Democrats to gain seats.

"We've talked a lot in our party about opposition to a $19,000 lectern, opposition to changing the state's Freedom of Information law, opposition to just arrogant conduct in this building that says we know better than you do -- the people that sent us here to represent you -- that doesn't equal I'm going to vote for a Democrat," Watson said.

"It doesn't mean because you oppose those actions that you're suddenly going to become a Democrat -- that's our work over the next year. We have to go out and make the case."

As for the party's targets for seats to pick up, Watson said there are at least a dozen winnable state House seats for Democrats, something he defined as a district where a Democrat won at least 40% of the vote in the last election or where Joe Biden won around 44-45% of the vote in 2020.

"We see a huge opportunity for breaking the supermajority and returning a little bit of balance to the state Legislature," Watson said.

Mays downplayed the Democrats' claim of success at recruitment, saying in many races the Democrats were desperate to just field a candidate.

Mays pointed to Watson's recruitment efforts, which included using X, formerly Twitter, to put out an open call for districts where the party needed a candidate.

Mays also pointed to the Democrats' relatively low filing fees, $2,500 for state Senate candidates and $1,000 for state House candidates. Democratic candidates challenging Republicans or running for a seat being vacated by a Republican could get their filing fees waived by collecting signatures: 400 signatures for Senate candidates and 150 for House ones.

In contrast, Republican state Senate candidates were required to pay a $7,500 fee, while House candidates had to pay $3,000, money Mays said the state GOP will use for its 2024 campaign efforts.

"Just to go out and find somebody that lives in an area and says, 'Sure I'll stick my name on the ballot,' that's not all that difficult," Mays said.

"Finding anybody is not hard. Finding the candidate is hard. They have found a lot of people, but I don't know that they have found a lot of solid candidates in any of these districts."

Correction: Arkansas Republicans fielded 100 candidates covering 86 races for seats in the state House of Representatives by the end of the candidate filing period on Tuesday. A story in Wednesday’s editions incorrectly stated that Republican candidates filed to run in all 100 House races.