GOP: Win in Jonesboro bellwether for November general election

LITTLE ROCK — The state Republican Party sees a Republican’s victory in the race for a state Senate seat in northeastern Arkansas held by Democrats since Reconstruction as a sign of things to come in November.

State Democrats say the GOP is reading too much into a special election where voter turnout was light.

Republican John Cooper received 57 percent of the vote in the District 21 state Senate special election, defeating Democrat Steve Rockwell to fill the seat vacated by the resignation of Democrat Paul Bookout.

The vote was 4,314 to 3,227, with 16.76 percent of eligible voters in the district participating, according to unofficial election results from the secretary of state’s office.

Megan Tollett, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said in a statement Wednesday that “the historically Democrat stronghold of Northeast Arkansas is no longer Democrat at all. It’s Republican country.”

She noted that in 2010, Republican Rick Crawford became the first Republican since 1875 to win Arkansas’ 1st District congressional seat and that Crawford received 56 percent of the vote in Craighead County.

Tollett said Tuesday’s election results should be “a wake-up call” for Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, who seeking a third term and facing a challenge from presumptive Republican nominee U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle. She said Pryor won his 2002 Senate race against Republican incumbent Tim Hutchinson with the help of a large margin in the 1st Congressional District and that he vitally needs to win that district to win his current race.

“The political ground is shifting beneath Sen. Mark Pryor’s feet,” Tollett said.

Patrick Burgwinkle, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said Wednesday,”They’re grasping at straws.”

“If Congressman Cotton’s campaign wants to hang their hat on a special election for a state legislative seat where only 16 percent of registered voters participated, that speaks volumes,” he said.

Cooper said Wednesday he believed voters made a statement with his election.

“There’s a pretty good margin in this (victory), and I think there is some message,” he said. “My message in general is conservative values, and I think that registered with the voters in a significant way, and I see that in northeast Arkansas as playing a big role going forward now.”

Gov. Mike Beebe, the titular head of the state Democratic Party who appeared in a television ad for Rockwell, acknowledged Wednesday that “it was a pretty convincing win for Mr. Cooper.”

The governor said polls show that it hurts Arkansas Democrats when Republican opponents tie them to President Obama, so it was no surprised to see that happen in the Jonesboro election. Obama is widely unpopular in Arkansas.

Asked whether the outcome has significance for the general election, Beebe said, “November is November.”

Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, said the voters who turn out for a special election are typically more partisan and more attuned to the specific dynamics of a race than the voters who participate in a general election, so “they tend to be not especially representative of general-election voters.”

On the other hand, recent election cycles and polls have shown an undeniable political shift in the state, she said.

“Arkansas has clearly made a transition at least to competitiveness if not Republican dominance. That’s clear,” Parry said. “But I wouldn’t read too much into a single special election in terms of trying to determine where the state’s actually going to land.”

— Arkansas News Bureau reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.