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Arkansas: GOP Has Edge in Pitched Congressional Battles

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

December 21, 2011

Democrats view the Republican congressional victories in Arkansas last time as an opportunity for one or more claw-back victories in 2012. They cite a late October poll taken for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) which showed that the Republican congress is under water in two key districts, the 1st and the 2nd.  A GOP operative, however, says “I don’t see anything that’s gong to change another Republican sweep up and down the ballot at least one more time in 2012…The problem any Democrat has is that President Obama is immensely unpopular here… The President’s ratings are toxic.” Moreover, the unemployment rate in Arkansas is 8.2 percent, which keeps the bad economy on the front burner as an issue. Thus, while Obama got a mere 39 percent to John McCain’s 59 percent in Arkansas in 2008, he is probably less popular here now than then. (The White House apparently knows it; Obama has not been to the state since he was elected.) Moreover, while Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is very popular, he’s not on the ballot and is more likely to spend his time trying to keep Democrats in control of the legislature, where they lost a significant number of seats in both chambers in 2010.


In the 1st District (Jonesboro, etc.), freshman Rick Crawford (R) won by a slim 52 percent in 2010 and is a top target of Democrats in 2012. Crawford is a former farm news broadcaster and is well-known in this rural district. In addition, he is well-versed in agricultural issues. But a GOP insider agrees that “Crawford is an easy target. He doesn’t come home that often, and when he does, he stays in his comfort zone… And he doesn’t get his name in the paper very often.” His ace in the hole is probably President Obama, who garnered only 38 percent in the district in 2008 and may run even worse in 2012. Crawford has raised $375,000 so far and has $205,000 on hand.


The likely Democratic challenger is state Rep. Clark Hall, a farmer and the former mayor of Marvell, Arkansas, who has been endorsed by the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats in Congress. Hall, who is described as folksy in manner, is “the perfect example of the type of Democrat we need to win seats in the South,” says one Democratic insider. Another Democrat is also running, Gary Latanich, an economist at Arkansas State University, but Hall is favored for the nomination. Based on the district’s voting history, party officials give the 1st District a 49 percent Democratic rating, which amounts to a “typical Democratic performance.” The Democrats also cite the DCCC-sponsored Public Policy Polling (PPP) that showed 43 percent of voters would vote to reelect Crawford while 48 percent would prefer someone else. The Democrats continue to raise some of Crawford’s past financial problems, including a 17 year-old bankruptcy filing. The charge, however, was used unsuccessfully in 2010. “A good Democrat,” says the GOPer, “will take back the district, but I just don’t think they’ll do it in 2012.” Leans Republican.


In the 2nd District (Little Rock, etc.), freshman Tim Griffin (R) won with 58 percent in 2010 and is working hard to hold his seat in 2012. A GOP operative describes Griffin as “the hardest working politician in the state. He’s very astute. Tom Griffin never stops.” He is also a gifted fundraiser, with $741,000 raised so far and $380,000 on hand.


Democrats give this district a 53 rating, making it the strongest Democratic district in the state. And the PPP survey showed 44 percent would vote to reelect Griffin to 49 percent who would vote for someone else. Griffin’s strength, however, may make it difficult for the Democrats to take advantage of their latent support here. Nevertheless, a number of prominent Democrats are looking at the race, including state party chair and former state legislator Will Bond, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, state Rep. Jay Martin, former state Sen. Shane Broadway and former lieutenant governor and 2010 US Senate candidate Bill Halter. One factor motivating Democrats to mount a strong challenge to Griffin is that they view him as a potential future Republican statewide candidate – perhaps the US Senate in 2014 – and they would like to “take him out now,” says the insider (D), rather than later, when he might be even stronger. Likely Republican.


In the 3rd District (Fayetteville, etc.) freshman Steve Womack (R) won this GOP stronghold with 72 percent in 2010. Womack will likely get a token Democratic opponent in this traditionally Republican district, but for now is a safe bet for reelection. He has raised $201,000, with $203,000 on hand. Safe Republican.


In the 4th District (Texarkana, etc.), six-term Mike Ross (D), who won by 58 percent against a hard-charging but under-financed challenge in 2010, is retiring. Some GOPers believe he may have had trouble winning reelection in 2012 had he run. Obama got only 39 percent of the vote here in 2008, to McCain’s 58 percent, which shows the district’s partisan bent. Nevertheless, Democrats are likely to mount a strong effort here. The first Democrat to enter the race to succeed Ross was term-limited state Sen. Gene Jeffress (D), a retired high school choir director who has served as music minister in a number of churches in the district. Jeffress, who has described himself as “a common man who will try to do uncommon things in Congress,” has so far not been embraced by his party’s establishment. Thus, other Democrats are also looking at, or being looked at, for the race, including former state Rep. Steve Harrelson and Gregory Reap. One party insider, noting that retiring Congressman Ross is “incredibly popular” in the district, says that the party is “trying to find a Mike Ross Democrat to run in the district.”


Republicans, however, are equally optimistic about winning the open seat. Beth Anne Rankin (R), a former policy advisor to ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), garnered 40 percent in her 2010 race against Ross. Rankin, who hasn’t stopped campaigning since her last contest, has raised $176,000, with $163,000 on hand. A businesswoman and a former Miss Arkansas, Rankin has party activists, especially women, working on her behalf. Says a GOP insider, “It will be a battle between a grass-roots campaign and a TV/direct mail campaign” waged by her better-financed major primary foe, Tom Cotton. Another factor which may determine how well Rankin does is how involved Huckabee will become on her behalf.


Cotton (R), a former management consultant, is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is also a decorated combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But “nobody knows him,” says a Republican insider. Cotton is traveling the district and his big war chest will get him on TV. And he has shown himself to be a successful fundraiser, having garnered $343,000 already, with $331,000 on hand. “That puts him in a neck-and-neck race with Rankin.”


Marcus Richmond (R) is a businessman (America’s Pet Registry CEO) and a Marine veteran. He hails from Scott County, which is a neighbor of the area new to the district. He trails badly in the money chase, with $18,000 raised and $14,000 on hand.


Little Rock businessman D. C. Morrison, who garnered 13 percent in the 2010 Democratic US Senate primary, is also running, this time as a Republican. Morrison, 62, is a conservative, who in his last campaign urged the overthrow of Roe v. Wade and the repeal of “Obamacare.” He called the President a socialist and in the General Election, backed Republican John Boozman. Morrison will move to the 4th District soon to make the race.


John Cowart (R), a police officer in Texarkana currently in Afghanistan with the Marine Reserves, is also running. Cowart is a religious conservative.


Although the GOP is optimistic in this district, Democrats believe that “the heated primary between Rankin and Cotton is going to get pretty ugly,” hindering the GOP effort in the General Election. The primaries are May 22.  As for the outcomes, in both the primary and the general, it’s too soon to say.


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