LITTLE ROCK — A candidate backed by Republican leaders and groups took an early lead Tuesday over a judge who criticized her appeals to GOP voters in the technically nonpartisan race for a state Supreme Court seat in Arkansas.
The race for the seat being vacated by retiring Justice Jo Hart was the only statewide race on the ballot other than the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the state's Democratic primary, while President Donald Trump won the state's Republican contest.
Barbara Webb, chief administrative law judge of the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission, was leading Pulaski County Circuit Judge Morgan "Chip" Welch in the race to replace Hart on the seven-member court.
Webb is the wife of the state Republican Party chairman, and Welch has criticized her appeals to GOP voters and speeches to Republican gatherings around the state. Webb, who has the backing of Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, has in turn accused Welch of downplaying his Democratic ties. Welch once ran for the Legislature as a Democrat and donated to Democratic candidates before he was elected judge in 2012.
Webb's candidacy has also been helped by an outside conservative group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has spent at least $225,000 on TV, radio and online ads promoting her. The group was one of two that spent more than $2.8 million on an unsuccessful effort two years ago to oust a state Supreme Court justice.
"This is a cold, cool political calculation designed to subvert amendment 80," Welch said, referring to the amendment that made Arkansas' court races nonpartisan.
Webb, however, insisted she has support from members of both parties and said there's nothing in her record to show she'd be guided by politics.
"My opponent likes to narrow me into one niche and that's not my experience or my record," she said.
Biden won Arkansas' Democratic primary after lining up support from some of the state's top Democrats, but hadn't campaigned in person in the state. Arkansas is a solidly red state, but it drew heavy interest from Democratic presidential hopefuls as one of more than a dozen states holding its nominating contest Tuesday. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg spent heavily in the state and took the unusual step of appearing in person to file for the primary. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren held an event in North Little Rock over the weekend. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders visited the state last year to appear at Walmart's shareholder meeting.
The election also featured several hotly contested Republican primaries for the majority-GOP Legislature. Republican Sen. John Cooper, who voted in committee against legislation loosening regulations for the use of deadly force in self-defense, was unseated by state Rep. Dan Sullivan in the primary for a northeast Arkansas Senate seat.
Kelly McConnell, 58, a Little Rock Realtor who voted for Bloomberg in the presidential primary, said she cast her ballot for Welch in the Arkansas court race. She cited Webb's support from Republicans.
"It's clearly partisan, and it's not supposed to be, and that's terrible," she said.
Diann Buercklin, 56, a Little Rock nanny who voted for Trump in the Republican primary, said she voted for Webb primarily because she believed a woman should hold a seat on the court. Currently, women hold four of the seven seats on Arkansas' Supreme Court.
"I want to see some more women get in there because I think they're more willing to make changes,"she said.