LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' 2012 election season formally began Thursday amid traditional pageantry and new expectations of a political sea change in perhaps the last Democratic bastion in the South.

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ 2012 election season formally began Thursday amid traditional pageantry and new expectations of a political sea change in perhaps the last Democratic bastion in the South.

“No matter which side of the political aisle you are on, you are here to make us a better country,” Secretary of State Mark Martin told more than 200 people during a brief ceremony marking the beginning of the political filing period.

The Capitol rotunda was adorned with red, white and blue bunting for the occasion.

Martin’s office said 197 people filed for president, Congress, the Legislature, state Supreme Court, state Court of Appeals or circuit judge positions on the first day of the filing period.

Of the 173 filing for legislative seats, 125 — 57 Democrats and 68 Republicans — filed for House seats, and 48 — 23 Democrats and 25 Republicans — filed for Senate seats.

All 135 legislative seats are up for election this year following redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census.

Doyle Webb, who oversaw a Republican surge in 2010 as chairman of the state GOP, predicted this year’s elections would give his party control of the Legislature for the first time in more than a century. Republicans currently hold 45 of the 100 House seats and 15 of the 35 Senate seats.

“We will file the largest number of candidates that we have ever filed for the (Legislature) this week,” Webb said. “We’re looking to gain the majority in both the state House and the state Senate. I doubt that we will have a candidate in every race, but we won’t know that until noon next Thursday,” when the filing period ends.

On the other hand, state Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said he expected a different election dynamic this year with the economy improving.

“We expect to maintain the majority, not just by a slim margin but by a significant margin at the end of the election. We do think we’ll gain seats in the House, and possibly one or two seats in the Senate,” Bond said.

The first candidate to file Thursday was Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, running for the newly drawn District 70 seat. Nine Republicans followed before a Democrat, Sen. Jack Crumbly of Widener, filed for re-election.

Meeks told reporters it wasn’t his plan to be first in line. He said he walked from the House chamber to the Capitol rotunda just before 11 a.m. and saw Duane Neal of Bentonville talking to someone at one of the tables set up for the filing period.

Meeks, who is seeking his second term, said Neal, also a Republican, wasn’t familiar with the filing process, so he managed to get in front of him.

“He … was talking at the other table and going through the process before I knew exactly what I needed to do and just happened to leapfrog him on that,” Meeks said.

Neal, of Bentonville, filed for House District 93.

“I just think that I can be of value to our state,” said Neal, a former justice of the peace and county treasurer for Benton County.

Filers for national office Thursday included state Sen. Gene Jeffress, D-Louann, who filed for the 4th District congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who is not running for re-election.

Republican John Cowart of Genoa, a former Marine and police officer, also filed for the 4th District seat.

First District Congressman Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, filed Thursday to seek a second term. He predicted another strong showing by Republicans this year but said that does not mean he won’t have to work hard.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” he said.

Alice Stewart, a former spokeswoman for presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Michele Bachmann and who now speaks for Republican presidential hopeful and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, filed paperwork for Santorum to appear on the ballot in Arkansas. Santorum has not campaigned in the state, but Stewart said he may visit before the state’s May 22 primaries.

“The way things are looking, this (primary race) could possibly be well into May or June, so there’s a possibility that all the candidates will come to Arkansas,” she said.

Former state GOP chairman Dennis Milligan, the Saline County circuit clerk, filed paperwork Thursday for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to run in Arkansas’ Republican presidential primary.

The filing fee for Republicans seeking the GOP presidential nomination is $25,000.