By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - For more than a century, the Democratic Party has dominated Arkansas politics.
State Republican Party officials believe they have a fighting chance this year to break that streak, with plans to field the largest number of GOP candidates in more than 150 years for offices ranging from justice of the peace to Congress.
As candidates last week began filing papers stating their intention to run for state offices, Republican leaders made clear their hopes that 2012 will be the year they finally win back the Arkansas Legislature, a rare dot of Democratic blue amid a statehouse landscape dominated by GOP red across the South.
They last controlled it during Reconstruction.
"Voters are waking up to the fact that the state Democratic Party no longer reflects the views and values of every Arkansan," said Doyle Webb, Republican Party of Arkansas chairman.
Republicans are betting that they can build on the momentum of 2010, when voter frustration over the economy provided a big boost to the party in national and state elections. What's more, in Arkansas, the GOP has been making inroads with white voters living in rural areas, a group that traditionally backed Democrats, experts said.
While the state has swung for Republican presidential candidates including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and John McCain - and for Republican governor Mike Huckabee -- Democrats dominated down-ballot races.
As Southern state legislatures started trending Republican after the 1994 mid-term elections, weak GOP candidates and Arkansas Democrat Bill Clinton's rise to the White House helped make Arkansas a holdout state. Clinton's success, though, wasn't enough to help his vice president, Al Gore, beat George W. Bush in Arkansas during the 2000 presidential race.
Today Arkansas is the only state in the South where both chambers of the legislature are controlled by Democrats.
"No small part of the explanation lies in the string of high-profile Democrats like Bill Clinton, former Senator Dale Bumpers and current Governor Mike Beebe, who have possessed an almost supernatural charisma, or who have successfully appropriated key elements of the Republican agenda, or both," said Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
"That long guaranteed that Republicanism would remain a foreign concept," she added.
Not anymore. Even Beebe - one of the most popular governors in the country - can't hold back the Republican wave.
Parry said Republicans expected a change 20 years ago when the state instituted term limits in the Legislature. But it didn't happen, mostly because the Republican Party had yet to build up a farm team to become competitive despite Huckabee becoming a high-profile Republican governor.
Democrats aren't so sure that the GOP can claim victory in Arkansas just yet.
"It will be interesting to see if the Republicans follow through on their promises, even when it comes to the number of candidates they will field," said Candace Martin, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas. "Just last week, a Republican dropped out of a state senate race."
In 2010, Arkansas Republican John Boozman defeated Democratic U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln in a hotly contested race. Republicans also won two congressional seats long held by Democrats.
At the state level in 2010, Republicans picked up three state offices, including lieutenant governor. That year - when Republicans were swept into offices across the country - the number of GOP seats in the 100-member Arkansas House of Representatives increased from 28 to 45. In 2011, a Democratic representative switched parties, increasing that number to 46.
The 35-member state Senate increased its number of Republicans from eight to 15 in the last mid-term election.
This year, all state House and Senate seats are on the ballot in Arkansas. Republicans need a net gain of five seats to take control of the House and a net gain of three seats to take control of the Senate.
Huckabee, who served as the state's governor from 1996 to 2007, said it is time for Arkansas to become a two-party state.
"Many of us who labored under the one-party system remember well how challenging it was to be placed in the back of parades, be placed in the back of room of public events and not introduced, and having the sound turned off when one got up to speak," Huckabee said in an e-mail to Reuters. "Barack Obama and his radical left agenda has now helped the GOP in AR soar to near parity."
Clint Reed, a former regional political director at the Republican National Committee, said the increase in the GOP numbers is part of a demographic trend in Arkansas.
"The population shift to more suburban areas of Central Arkansas and the growth in Northwest Arkansas make the macro-environment more conducive for Republicans to win races," Reed said. "At its heart, the trend is this: Democrats over the last few years have been losing support to Republicans among rural white voters at an alarming pace."
Parry said that 2010 was a turning point in the state.
"The national anti-Democrat wave of 2010 gave Republicans a big, multi-level, multi-branch boost," Parry said. "Although it's possible 2010 was just a blip, maintaining a large number of candidacies is a good sign party competition is finally going to stick here."
(Reporting By Suzi Parker; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Paul Thomasch)