OPINION: Womack wins, justices in runoff, Trump, Biden prevail

For the most part, the much-expected major results from the March 5 preferential primaries in Arkansas shook out as expected. And adding to the less than exciting evening, Arkansas continues to have a dismally low voter turnout with only 20.6% of all registered voters going to the polls.

The voters, on March 5, made several decisions in local and statewide races, with the lowest percentage of registered voters in a primary in a presidential year in more than a dozen years. The 357,920 Arkansans who cast ballots on March 5 were the fewest since 2012.

The award for highest turnout goes to Lee County, one of the state's poverty pockets in the East Arkansas Delta, with 40.6%, but only two other counties (Cleburne County and Hempstead County) barely cracked 30% of registered voters voting. All other counties, even here at home, were pitifully low on turnout.

Desha County, in southeast Arkansas, had the state's lowest turnout with a paltry 11.61%; and Woodruff County, another Delta County, simply had the fewest voters with 586.

In sharp contrast, locally, there were only 25,832 people who turned out for the election in Washington County. Sadly, that is just under 18.69% of the 138,184 registered voters in the county.

Benton County, which had substantially more local races, including a countywide prosecuting attorney's race, and some very divisive issue-based ballot questions, had only 33,912 voters, out of 181,192 registered voters, cast ballots. Or, some will say, a dismal 18.72% of the total eligible voters.

Former President Donald J. Trump won Arkansas' GOP voters. Also, President Joe Biden won the Democratic party's nomination from Arkansas. Neither candidate or political party had the dismal number of votes from four years ago. It was significantly worse this time around.

The eternal "grumpiness" of Congressman Steve Womack of Rogers, R-3rd District of Arkansas, was set aside on election night. Womack won the direct in party challenge from newly elected state Sen. Clinton Penzo, R-Tontitown, with a 53-46 split of the GOP voters in the northwest corner of the state.

State Supreme Court Justice Courtney Hudson of Fayetteville also won a bid to a new seat on Arkansas' highest judicial panel, with 59% of all the votes over state Circuit Judge Calton Jones, of Texarkana, with 41%. This win thus enables Justice Hudson, after Jan. 1, 2025, to allow Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to appoint a new justice to fill in Hudson's two remaining years of her previous seat on the court.

The night's big surprise to many was the exact outcome of a four-person scrum between three sitting state Supreme Court justices and a lone challenger outside the court's walls.

The two sitting state Supreme Court justices who emerged from the narrow percentage contest, Justice Rhonda Wood and Justice Karen Baker, are now heading into a November runoff in the General Election. Baker led the quartet with 27.2% of the vote, followed by Wood with 26.3%.

Most insiders in the state GOP Party had their eyes on the powerful spouse of former Arkansas GOP Party head Doyle Webb, Justice Barbara Womack Wood, to lead the ticket. She was a close third place with 25.9%, just ahead of outside candidate Jim Martin, who gloriously spouted off in his ads he "didn't even own a robe." Martin won over 20.6% of all the voters.

I guess if he was in the runoff, or ultimately had won, somebody would have "given" him one or loaned him a black cloak for the ultimate bench duties.

Hudson on election night thanked her late colleague and friend, Robin Wynne, whose seat she won on March 5. Both Wynne and Hudson were often seen in the same camp of the state Supreme Court prior to his death.

Womack in a victory night speech, before hurrying back to the nation's capital to vote on the national debt ceiling, said, "I am honored, I am thrilled and I will carry this vote to the general election and do the things necessary to push back against this Biden agenda, secure our border, provide for the needs of our men and women who faithfully and voluntarily serve our country in uniform and be that voice of the conservative values that define our nation."

Womack will face Democrat Caitlin Draper in the general election on Nov. 5.

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Next week with Spring Break comes a pair of columns on new books to read this summer.

--Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.