By STEVE BRAWNER
A biennial rite of passage began at noon Monday with the start of the candidate filing period at the Arkansas State Capitol.
A crowd of incumbents, political veterans, and newcomers converged on the second floor rotunda to throw their hats into the ring or to support those who did. Each year, there’s an air of excitement as politicos of all types and both parties gather in one place to begin their campaigns.
The March 5 elections will have a few interesting races – none more so than the one for Supreme Court chief justice. Four candidates are expected to file, including three current justices: Barbara Webb, Rhonda Wood and Karen Baker. The fourth candidate is attorney and former state representative Jay Martin.
With four candidates running for one seat, the top two finishers probably will end up in the judicial runoff, which occurs in the general election November 5 one year from now. Three will have the considerable advantage of having “justice” in front of their name on the ballot. Martin, the only non-justice, also will be the only man in the race, which may not mean anything these days. Four of the seven current justices are women, after all.
The four are vying to take the place of current Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who is leaving the court because a state law forfeits judges’ retirement benefits if they are elected when they are past age 70. Yes, that’s the law in Arkansas at the same time the current president of the United States is 80 and his most likely Republican challenger is 77.
Webb arrived well before the 3 p.m. start of the judicial filing period. I asked her what it’s like for three current justices to judge cases together while competing for the same seat.
“Well, we’re very respectful of each other, and we don’t let the campaign get in the middle of our court business,” she said. “My approach is that I’m running for the office, not really against the other justices, and as long as everybody follows that thought process, I think we’ll be fine.”
Another potential high-profile March race could involve U.S. Rep. Steve Womack being challenged by current state Sen. Clint Penzo for the 3rd District House seat in Northwest Arkansas. Penzo told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Nov. 3 that he would make an announcement “within the next few days” after a “penzoforcongress.com” website appeared online and then disappeared.
It’s not hard to imagine what kind of campaign he would run. Womack lately has been bucking the party trend. He was one of 20-25 Republicans who vocally opposed the speaker candidacy of Rep. Jim Jordan, who was supported by former President Trump. When a member of Congress does that, he or she takes a chance on losing to a member of their own party in the primary. On the other hand, incumbents usually get re-elected. Stay tuned.
As for the November elections, three Democrats filed to run for Congress Monday. Marcus Jones is running against Rep. French Hill in the 2nd District in central Arkansas. Rodney Govens is challenging Rep. Rick Crawford in the 1st District encompassing eastern and northern Arkansas. Womack also drew a Democratic challenger, Caitlin Draper. Another Democrat is considering running in the 4th District against Rep. Bruce Westerman.
The 2nd District race could be interesting, as it occasionally is. It’s the state’s most competitive district because it contains most of Little Rock, where the Democrats have some strength. Jones is a retired Army colonel with 29 years of service, a chest full of medals and a nice family photo. He has already released an impressive online ad.
Hill once again will have to work to get back to Congress, but recent history is on his side. He’s faced some good Democratic opponents in the past. Pre-election polls indicated those races would be competitive, but he’s always won with room to spare. Furthermore, Republicans in the Arkansas Legislature redrew his district lines after the 2020 census to include more Republican and fewer Democratic areas.
There will be more to come later as more candidates file, including former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is expected to file in person in the presidential race.
Want to run for something? Candidate filing will continue until noon Nov. 14.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.