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A Pine Bluff attorney launches a bid for a south Arkansas congressional seat as filing period ends

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A Pine Bluff attorney challenging U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman was among the final candidates to file paperwork with the state before Tuesday’s deadline to qualify for the ballot next year in Arkansas.

Risie Howard filed to run as a Democrat against Westerman, a Republican, in the 4th Congressional District next year. Westerman was first elected to the seat in 2014. He was reelected last year with 71% of the vote and has more than $2.2 million on hand for his reelection bid.

Republicans hold all four of Arkansas’ U.S House seats, and Democrats are fielding candidates to challenge those lawmakers next year.

More than 350 candidates made their candidacies official during the Arkansas filing period, which began Nov. 6. Arkansas’ primaries and nonpartisan judicial elections will be held on March 5.

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Democrats touted recruiting successes for the predominantly Republican Legislature, where the GOP holds 82 of the 100 seats in the House and 29 of the 35 seats in the Senate. All 100 House seats and 18 Senate seats are up next year.

State Democratic Party Chairman Grant Tennille portrayed GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a recruiting tool for the party, citing the governor’s education overhaul that created a new school voucher program and questions she’s faced over the purchase of a $19,000 lectern for her office.

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The party said it will contest 64 House districts, the most since it last held a majority in the Legislature in 2012. In all, the party has 78 candidates running for state House and seven for the state Senate.

“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 are speaking for themselves,” Tennille said.

But Seth Mays, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said the governor remains an asset for GOP candidates.

“I think the governor’s popularity will be a net positive, and you’ll see that from the number of candidates she appears with and that they use in mail and digital advertising,” Mays said. “I think that alone will speak for itself.”

Sanders is not on the ballot next year, but an outside group has been running TV ads touting her accomplishments and last week the governor endorsed her former boss Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump is running in a field that includes Sanders’ predecessor, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

The judicial filings set the stage for a crowded race for state Supreme Court chief justice. Three members of the court — Justices Karen Baker, Barbara Webb and Rhonda Wood — and former state Rep. Jay Martin are running for the open seat.