Republican Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas faces challenge from state lawmaker in GOP primary

Arkansas State Sen. Clint Penzo speaks at a legislative hearing at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. Penzo is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in the Republican primary for the third congressional district in Arkansas. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

Months after batting down speculation he was considering retirement, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Womack is running for reelection against a state lawmaker who is trying to portray him as not conservative enough for the northwest Arkansas district.

Womack, 67, faces state Sen. Clint Penzo in Tuesday’s GOP primary for the 3rd Congressional District, and is running with several advantages in the race. Womack has the endorsement of the state’s top Republicans, including Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the support of National Right to Life and other conservative groups.

The seven-term congressman has also eclipsed Penzo in fundraising, with nearly $2 million in the bank for his reelection bid. Penzo, who announced his candidacy in November, has only a fraction of that on hand. Whoever wins the primary faces Democrat Caitlin Draper in the November election.

Womack stoked speculation that he wouldn’t run when he told The Washington Post last summer he hadn’t decided whether to seek reelection and vented frustration with dysfunction in Congress. After the interview published, Womack said he planned to seek reelection.

Womack called the speculation overblown and said he normally waits until Labor Day before making a decision on seeking reelection.

“I still had the burning desire and felt like I had something to offer in the quest to solve some of the more profound challenges of our time,” Womack told The Associated Press last month. “And it covers the waterfront: deficit and debt, border security, the geopolitical structure around the world and the emergence of adversaries that threaten United States sovereignty.”

Womack said he’s well-equipped to take on those challenges, given his seniority and position in Washington. Womack, who was first elected in 2010, is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and serves on the panel’s Financial Services and General Government subcommittee.

Womack easily won reelection in the heavily Republican district in 2022 with more than 63% of the vote. Republicans hold all four of the state’s U.S. House seats. Womack is the only one who faces a primary challenge on Tuesday.

Penzo, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has questioned the lawmaker’s conservative bona fides in the race. When he announced his candidacy, the state senator said Womack had “lost touch” with his district.

“The difference between Steve Womack and me is that I told the voters I would be a conservative fighter they could trust, and I have stood firm. I haven’t changed,” Penzo said in the news release announcing his bid.

Penzo, 48, has served in the state Senate since 2023 and served in Arkansas House for two terms berfore that. He has criticized Womack for opposing Rep. Jim Jordan’s unsuccessful bid to replace ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Womack instead voted for House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who withdrew his bid after facing opposition from GOP hardliners. Womack ultimately voted for Mike Johnson, who was elected speaker.

Womack called his support for Scalise at the time a matter of principle and dismissed Penzo’s criticism over the Jordan vote.

“We ended up with Mike Johnson as speaker, a dedicated conservative, a conservative person from top to bottom who is faced with trying to deal with a very fractured conference that led to the dismissal of Kevin McCarthy,” he said.

Womack said he wants to work with Johnson on pursuing his priorities, but said he also wants to be realistic about the thin majority that his party holds in the House.

“I don’t think shutting the government down and threatening taking us back into the minority is the right course of action,” he said. “So I work every day to pursue the agendas I think this country will need, albeit recognizing that along the way we’re probably not going to get everything we want.”