LITTLE ROCK — U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin’s surprise announcement Monday that he would not seek re-election had handicappers scrambling to move the 2nd District congressional seat from safe for Republicans to being in play for Democrats.
Members of both major parties expressed interest in what will be an open seat in next year’s election.
Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Rothenberg Report all said Griffin’s departure moves the seat into their narrow list of competitive races for 2014.
“This takes a race that people weren’t paying much attention to and puts it into the top tier of competitive races,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which has moved the 2nd District seat from “Safe Republican” to “Leans Republican.”
“Griffin is a very formidable incumbent who would be difficult to dislodge. He is also known as a hard-nosed and savvy strategist in his own right, which meant it was less likely a credible Democrat would enter the race. His absence takes away that intimidation factor,” said David Wasserman, a political analyst at Cook Political Report, which has moved the 2nd District from “Solid Republican” to “Leans Republican.”
Rothenberg Political Report has moved Arkansas’ 2nd District from “Safe Republican” to “Leans Republican.” Deputy Editor Nathan Gonzales said the district is the most likely in Arkansas for Democrats to win, but Republicans still have the edge.
Griffin won the district with 55 percent of the vote in 2012 and 58 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, President Obama received just 43 percent of the vote in the district in 2012 and 44 percent in 2008.
The newly open race is drawing interest from a number of possible contenders. Republicans considering a run include state Sens. Jason Rapert of Conway and Jonathan Dismang of Beebe, along with Little Rock banker French Hill. On the Democratic side, former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays, former state Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway and Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, are among the possible candidates.
Rapert said Monday he had received “several calls” about the race, including some from national Republicans. He said he expects to make a decision within the next few days.
“I am at a point right now where I am just weighing the situation with my family,” he said. “Obviously we want to pray and make the best decision for not only my family but also for my district.”
Rapert has been a state legislator since 2011. He sponsored Act 301 of this year, which bans most abortions after 12 weeks into a pregnancy. The law is the subject of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Dismang, a state legislator since 2009, said Monday, “I have had some contacts and I’ve appreciated folks reaching out, but I’m confident there’s going to be a long list of folks that are considering that position, and I’m just one of them at this point.”
Hill, CEO and chairman of the board of Delta Trust & Banking Corp., announced last month as a Republican candidate for an open state House seat, but a spokesman for Hill, Bryan Sanders, said Monday that Hill is weighing his options.
“Since Congressman Griffin’s surprise announcement, French has received a number of calls and emails from supporters of his effort to run for the state House seat in District 35 urging him to instead consider running for the 2nd Congressional District. Over the next few days French will visit with his family, business partners and supporters about this possibility,” Sanders said.
Halter spokesman Bud Jackson said in an email Monday, “Bill would be the strongest Democratic candidate for this district and he would help energize base voters there for statewide Democratic candidates. That’s why his phone has been ringing off the hook with people encouraging him to run since Griffin’s announcement. I would expect that encouragement to intensify.”
Halter served as lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011 and is best known for leading the push for what became the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. In January he announced as a candidate for governor, but in July he dropped out of that race, saying he wanted to a avoid a divisive Democratic primary with former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross.
Hays, a former legislator who was North Little Rock’s mayor for 24 years, fueled speculation about a possible challenge to Griffin by publicly criticizing the GOP incumbent’s role in the recent government shutdown. He did not immediately return calls Monday seeking comment but was expected to make an announcement Tuesday.
Tyler said Monday she had received numerous texts and phone calls encouraging her to run for the 2nd District seat following Griffin’s announcement.
“I am still considering just what’s best for the district and the state and my family, in terms of what race or any race that I might get involved in,” she said.
Tyler said she also is considering running for the state Senate or for state auditor. She said she has no time frame for making a decision.
Tyler served in the state House from 2009 to 2013. In 2012, she ran for the state Senate and lost in the general election to Rapert.
Masingill, a former official in Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration who has been with the Delta Regional Authority for two years, said Monday, “I have received strong and positive encouragement from people that I have been honored to hear from, and I will continue to listen to people’s feedback,” though he said his focus will continue to be on serving the people of the Delta region.
Reporter Peter Urban of the Stephens Washington Bureau contributed to this report.