On Tuesday, voters in State Senate District 21 will go to the polls to pick their new State Senator. Last summer, Democratic Senator Paul Bookout abruptly resigned after it was discovered that he had used campaign funds for personal use. The Ethics Committee concluded that he had violated four campaign finance laws.
The Democratic nominee is Steve Rockwell, a businessman and political science professor at Arkansas State University. The Republican nominee is John Cooper, a retired businessman and former candidate for the State House of Representatives.
Here’s a primer of what to expect.
Senate District 21 encompasses most of Craighead County, which is located in Northeastern Arkansas.
In 1859, Senator William A. Jones attempted to create a new county from Greene, Mississippi, and Poinsett counties. Thomas Craighead, who represented the Delta just east of where the new county was to be created, opposed the plan. Craighead believed that the new county would take money away from the Delta and Mississippi County.
In January 1859, Craighead returned to his farm in East Arkansas. Jones used Craighead’s absence to push the bill through the state legislature. As a gesture toward Craighead, Jones amended the resolution to name the county, “Craighead.” When Craighead returned to the Senate, he pushed through a resolution to name the county seat “Jonesboro” in honor of Jones.
In the years following the formation of Craighead County, the population consisted mainly of small farmers and businessmen. Because of the lack of big plantations, the county was less devoted to the ideals of slavery and the Confederacy.
Following the war, the county was the site of rapid Ku Klux Klan (KKK) growth. During the late 19th century, the variety of trees in the rural areas of the county were used to start a thriving lumber and woodworking industry.
During the Great Depression, the largely agricultural Craighead County suffered extreme distress. The legendary Bank of Jonesboro closed during the Depression years. Most farmers had nowhere to sell their crops.
After the war, integration of county schools took place rather peacefully. The integration stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the Delta, which often was the source of most segregationist sentiment.
Today, Craighead County has a fast growing economy. It is one of the best areas of Arkansas to do business and has seen a rapid rise in population over the past few decades.
The city produces bricks, chemicals, electric motors, lumber, wood products, and dairy. The rural areas of the county are home to hundreds of rivers, creeks, and oak, maple, and pine forests. In the fall, these forests are the source of fishing and duck hunting.
Some of the lowland rural areas are also fertile crop land, particularly for rice.
Arkansas State University is also located within Jonesboro. Many businesses in Jonesboro cater to the student population. The university is known for its heritage studies doctorate program as well as an environmental science program.
In the last few decades, Craighead County has attracted big companies, particularly St. Bernards Medical Center. These big companies have helped create bedroom communities, such as Bay, Bono, Brookland, and Lake City.
Today, the county is 81% white and 13% black. 18% of the county is below the poverty line. As of 2009, the median household income is $39,526.
Craighead County is part of the Delta. As such, it is part of the rural Democratic coalition that dominated state politics for over a century.
Today, county politics are still largely Democratic.
Nationally, the county has drifted toward Republicans. The county is a perfect area for Republicans to begin to make inroads into the Delta. New businesses and new people do not have the “demosaur” roots that other dying Delta counties have. New businesses also means that the Jonesboro community tends to be in favor of lower taxes and fiscal conservatism. (The rest of the Delta tends to be for earmarks, money etc.)
In 2012, Obama won 33% of the county vote. Two years earlier, Blanche Lincoln received 39% of the vote. 2010 Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor Shane Broadway (who lost statewide) received 52% of the vote here. And Mike Beebe received 68% of the vote.
Craighead County is represented by Republican Rick Crawford in Congress. In the State Senate, Craighead County is divided between Senate District 21 and 22. Republicans left both districts unchallenged to incumbent Democrats in 2012.
In the State House, Craighead County is split between District 52, District 53, District 58, and District 59.
District 52 only has a few agricultural precincts in the southern part of the county. That district is represented by Republican John Hutchinson, the only Republican to hold a seat east of White County.
District 53 is represented by Democrat Homer Lenderman. Lenderman was left unchallenged in 2012 and is considered fairly popular.
District 58 is represented by Democrat Harold Copenhaver. This seat was a Democratic pickup in the 2012 elections. Former Republican State Representative Jon Hubbard made a huge gaffe a few weeks before the election when he declared that blacks were better under slavery than they are now. Copenhaver will face a tough 2014 election.
District 59 is represented by Democrat Butch Wilkins. This seat was hotly contested in the 2012 elections. Republican John Cooper, the nominee for the current special election, was the nominee in this State House race. Despite massive spending by outside conservative groups, Wilkins defeated Cooper 54-46. Many people attributed Wilkins’s win to the fact that Cooper was considered one of the most conservative Republicans running for state legislature last year.
Locally, all county-wide elected offices are represented by Democrats. These include the County Judge, County Clerk, County Treasurer, County Sheriff, Circuit Clerk, County Collector, County Assessor, and Tax Collector.
Republicans have two members of the Quorum Court.
The campaign has been fairly low profile and has revolved around local issues such as the grocery tax, how to keep Jonesboro as a place to bring business and how to improve the local schools. Cooper has also talked about the fact that he is against gay marriage (a repeal of the gay marriage ban might be on the ballot next year), and that he is pro-gun (the legislature has recently passed bills to loosen up gun restrictions).
The big question in this race is the “private option.” The private option is the Republican alternative to the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. The private option says that Medicaid money will be used to buy private insurance for many low-income Arkansans. This idea was the brainchild of House Republican Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, who is now running for the 4th Congressional District. The idea has enraged fiscally conservative Republicans and Tea Party leaders who claim that the gambit will cost the state millions of dollars. John Cooper is against funding for the private option, while Steve Rockwell is for it.
The upcoming budget session is expected to start in February, and it is likely that a vote on the private option will come up again. The Republican leadership will need as many votes as possible for the private option, something that maybe tricky in an election year as Tea Party candidates gear up to challenge incumbents in the primary. If Cooper wins, funding for the private option might as well be dead.
Recently, the campaign has focused on ethics issues, as state leaders have found themselves involved in ethics scandals. Cooper has called on embattled Lieutenant Governor Darr to resign. Rockwell has not. Both have called for stronger and more transparent campaign finance laws as well as reform of the necessary finance forms.
Policy-wise, the private option is probably the biggest ramification for this special election. Most of the current Republican establishment in the state legislature is not as pure conservative on fiscal issues as outside groups would like. A Cooper win could start to turn the tide.
On the politics side of things, this election is huge. Craighead County is a key area of the state for both Mark Pryor and Mike Ross to win (they need to get at minimum 49% of the vote in this county to win the state) If Rockwell can’t put up a decent showing, Democrats are going to have some serious issues going into 2014.
The other big question is whether Republicans will finally be able to win a seat in the legislature in Northeast Arkansas. After tens of thousands of dollars of ads, and support from outside groups, Republicans came up empty here in 2012. They had a 0% success rate at winning seats in Northeastern Arkansas (their only win in the entire Delta was HD-52, a race that had little outside resources dedicated to it.) For Republicans to win in 2014, they will need to do well in Craighead County. They need an elected local official to build up the local party and start convincing Blue Dogs to change their party registration. A competent Craighead Republican Party could knock off 3 Democratic incumbents in the closely divided State House in 2014.
What to look for
The good news for the Republicans is that they beat Democrats in primary turnout back in October. The good news for Democrats is Steve Rockwell is much better financed and has a much better ground game.
Cooper needs a huge lead out of Bono and Greensboro and the precincts north of Jonesboro to win the seat. These precincts are less Democratic downballot.
Rockwell needs to do well in the sparsely populated rural areas (some voting downballot >80% Democratic) west of town.
Rockwell needs to post decent numbers east of town (40-45%).
Within Jonesboro, Rockwell needs to do well in Fowler Center 3 and Parker Park Community Center (the names of precincts.) He needs about 20% margin win out of both these precincts. Rockwell also needs to carry the Earl Bay Community Center Precinct, the Huntington Building, and Allen Park 6. Cooper needs Walnut Street Baptist Church Precinct by a big margin as well as Allen Park 8, YMCA and Fowler Center 9.
Roughly speaking, Rockwell needs to carry Northwest Jonesboro, West Jonesboro, and Southeast Jonesboro. Cooper needs to carry Southwest Jonesboro and Northeast Jonesboro.