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U.S. speaker fight influences Arkansas congressional race


U.S. speaker fight influences Arkansas congressional race

Feb 26, 2024 | 11:20 am ET
By Antoinette Grajeda
U.S. speaker fight influences Arkansas congressional race
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (left) is facing a challenge from Arkansas state Sen. Clint Penzo (right) in the Republican primary election for the 3rd Congressional District. Election day is March 5, 2024. (Courtesy photos)

Last year’s chaotic, unprecedented fight over who should be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives precipitated a Republican primary race in Arkansas’ third congressional district. 

The district includes Benton, Carroll, Washington, Madison and Crawford counties and a portion of Sebastian County.

map of Arkansas' 3rd Congressional District
Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District

Backed by ultra-conservative supporters, Arkansas state Sen. Clint Penzo is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in the March 5 primary.

Penzo has built a campaign around challenging the seven-term congressman’s Republican bonafides, calling Womack a RINO — Republican in name only — and promising to caucus with Washington D.C.’s most far-right lawmakers.

“The third congressional district — they have a Freedom Caucus member just across the border in Missouri and just across the border in Oklahoma,” Penzo told Breitbart last month. “Nobody in Arkansas is a member of the Freedom Caucus, and that’s something I would like to see changed in this next election.”

Womack, meanwhile, said his proven leadership, constituent service, military record and ability to influence many outcomes as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee make him the best candidate to represent Arkansas’ third district.

“When you look at the depth and breadth of my experience and background, I think it is ideally suited to being an exceptional member of Congress,” Womack said.

The 67-year-old in an interview with the Advocate said he has never missed a vote since being elected to the House in 2010. Prior to becoming a congressman, Womack served as Rogers mayor for 12 years and is a retired Arkansas Army National Guard colonel. His military career spans more than three decades and includes a deployment to the Middle East.

The Advocate asked both candidates for phone interviews. Womack agreed to speak over the phone and Penzo asked that questions be emailed to him.

Penzo served on the Tontitown City Council for two years and in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 2017 to 2022. The 48-year-old real estate agent was elected to the Arkansas Senate in 2022 and can continue serving his term if he loses the congressional race. 

Penzo said on his website that he has a “strong conservative record” and supports issues important to his constituents, including individual liberty, limited government, and opposition to tax increases and vaccine mandates.

Speaker race

Penzo told Breitbart that he entered the race after Womack voted against Freedom Caucus founder Jim Jordan as successor to former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and people reached out looking for someone to run against the incumbent.

Clint Penzo campaign sign
Arkansas state Sen. Clint Penzo is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in the Republican primary on March 5, 2024. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Penzo told the Advocate his concern with the speaker vote was that Womack disregarded resolutions from local Republican groups requesting the congressman vote for Jordan.

“He defied their request three times and then was disrespectful and condescending when responding to his constituents on why he voted against Jordan,” Penzo said. “This vote was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the people of the district.”

Womack said after his “close, personal friend” Congressman Steve Scalise won the party’s nomination for speaker, Jordan said he would only support the Louisiana Republican if he could get 217 votes.

When Scalise stepped aside after not meeting that threshold, Jordan won the nomination over Georgia Congressman Austin Scott. Jordan took his candidacy to the House floor after earning fewer than 217 votes, a move Womack called “a dog whistle to [Jordan’s] supporters” and an example of how “the rules were for me and not for thee.”

“My expectation of a leader is they are consistent in how they feel about process…I just felt like [Jordan’s action] was not consistent with what I believe the true character of a leader should be,” he said. 

Womack said he anticipated being the only Republican voting against Jordan on the House floor, but about two dozen others joined him in defeating Jordan’s nomination in three separate votes.

Conservative spending

Notable donors

As of Dec. 31, 2023, Womack has raised $1.28 million for his campaign while Penzo has raised $57,482, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Campaign contribution limits per election for congressional candidates are $3,300 for individuals. Donors giving the maximum amount for each candidate include:

Penzo for Congress

  • Joe & Kim Maynard
  • Brenda Vassaur Taylor
  • Elizabeth & John La Tour

Womack for Congress Committee

  • Alice, Jim, Rob, Steuart and Tom Walton
  • Jay Faison
  • Warren Stephens
  • Palmer Luckey
  • John Scofield
  • Brian Moore
  • Eric Scott
  • Christine & Daniel Richards
  • Travis Johnson
  • Grant & Jessica Harrison
  • Michelle & Patrick Esposito
  • Ronald Cameron
  • Charlotte & Curtis Bradbury
  • Thomas Allen
  • James Alexander

Both candidates say they are concerned with the national debt, which has doubled over the last 15 years to $34 trillion. 

Womack is a former House Budget Committee chairman who in 2018 served as the Republican chair of a committee tasked with recommending reforms to the budget and appropriations process. Womack told the Advocate a biennial budget could be a more efficient way to manage the process.

Additionally, he said Congress would likely need to insert guardrails to prevent lawmakers from circumventing the budget process with continuing resolutions or threats of government shutdowns. 

Congress has yet to complete the budget for fiscal 2024, which began Oct. 1. Lawmakers approved a short-term government funding bill in January and have until early March to finish work it was supposed to complete last fall.  

Mandatory spending will have to be addressed to tackle the national debt, which Womack said is driven by “primarily health care [and] in the entitlement programs.” 

The Arkansas congressman said he’s not suggesting cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but rather discussing the programs’ long-term sustainability. Womack said it’s going to require some restructuring of the programs and analysis of the age of eligibility.

“Congress is going to have to tackle the discussion on entitlements or else nothing else is going to work and the situation is going to continue to get worse and worse over time,” he said. 

Penzo’s website says Congress can’t continue spending money it doesn’t have, and he’s “ready to cut wasteful spending on day 1.” He told the Advocate that he and his constituents want single-item appropriation bills, which he believes will “help cut a tremendous amount of waste from our budgets.”

The state senator told 40/29 News that some constituents are upset with spending money on “frivolous studies” and sending funding to other countries like Ukraine.

“We just have to quit spending money we don’t have,” Penzo said. “We shouldn’t [send additional aid to Ukraine]. I mean as long as we have a deficit, a 33-plus-trillion-dollar deficit, how can we justify sending money to other countries?”

Border security

According to his website, Penzo believes illegal immigration is a national security threat and, if elected, he will “fight to strengthen U.S. immigration laws and secure our southern border.”

“Senator Penzo welcomes legal immigrants who come to America to start a better life; but the fact is, illegal immigration is…ILLEGAL,” according to his campaign website.

Penzo told the Advocate in an email that the U.S. needs to enforce existing laws, not create new border policies. He said he would support additional funding for completing the border wall and any additional border security assets needed.

The Springdale Republican told 40/29 News his concerns about border security include human trafficking, fentanyl trafficking and the influx of migrants from several countries. Penzo told the Advocate “unvetted military age males” can’t be allowed to enter the U.S.

While states like Texas have bused migrants across the country, Penzo said another solution is deportation.

“The issue of transporting them across the country, if they’re not coming into the country, that would be solved,” he said. “We just need to deport people that are coming into the country illegally.”

The U.S. Border Patrol had nearly 250,000 encounters with migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico in December, the highest monthly total on record, according to the Pew Research Center. However, an encounter does not necessarily mean migrants are allowed to enter the United States.

According to Pew, encounter refers to two distinct events — apprehensions, when migrants are taken into custody to await a decision on whether they can remain in the country legally, and expulsions, when migrants are immediately expelled to their home country or last country of transit without being held in U.S. custody.

A Rep. Steve Womack campaign billboard that reads "border security is national security"
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack is seeking is eighth term in Congress during the 2024 election. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Womack said he supports several tactics to enhance security at the southern border, including finishing construction of the border wall, asylum reforms, “ending the catch-and-release program” and supporting the “Remain in Mexico policy,” which required migrants seeking asylum to remain in Mexico until their U.S. immigration court date. 

“I believe border security is national security, and the fact that we’ve got a flow of human trafficking, drugs and violent extremist organization personnel that are crossing our borders is a real problem for our country,” Womack said. “So we need to establish and maintain proper border security and deal with a lot of the issues internal to our country that will only work once we can satisfy the issues on the border.”

Arkansas’ third congressional district is home to thousands of legal migrants, including one of the largest Marshallese communities outside of the Marshall Islands. 

After testing nearly 70 nuclear bombs in the 1940s and 1950s that contaminated the Marshall Islands with radiation, the U.S. signed Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. The compacts allow the U.S. to operate military bases in the Freely Associated States, while FAS citizens may live and work in the U.S. and its territories as lawful non-immigrants.

Womack sponsored legislation that would allow COFA migrants to qualify for most safety net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Language from the bill has been incorporated into a draft of the revised compact, which was up for renewal last year but has not yet been approved by Congress.

On Thursday, Womack sent a letter to the speaker of the House urging immediate approval of the compact. Womack told the Advocate the continued partnership between the two countries is vital to national security “given the threats that we’re facing from the Indo-Pacific region.”

“I’ve been a strong advocate for making sure that we keep our promise that America’s made to the people in the Marshall Islands because of all of the nuclear testing that we’ve done there, and then the strategic importance of that from a national security perspective,” he said.

Penzo said he has introduced several pieces of legislation to address the needs of the Marshallese community. While they have legal resident status, Penzo said they’re unable to obtain a green card, which is a necessary step to obtaining citizenship, so he would work to resolve the issue.

Marshallese citizens admitted to the U.S. under COFA do not have the status of lawful permanent residents (aka Green Card holders) under the Immigration and Nationality Act, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

They can become lawful permanent residents if they are otherwise eligible under immigration laws, either through the immigration visa process or by adjustment of status within the U.S. People generally must be granted lawful permanent resident status in the U.S. before they can apply for naturalization as a U.S. citizen, according to USCIS.