LITTLE ROCK — Just two years removed from controlling three of Arkansas’ four U.S. House seats, state Democrats have set their sights this year on trying to stop a Republican sweep of the entire House delegation in congressional elections this fall.
Republican gains in 2010, aided by the retirements of Democratic Reps. Marion Berry and Vic Snyder, left Democrats holding only the 4th District seat. Rep. Mike Ross’ decision not to run for re-election to that seat this year leaves the party with no incumbent in any race, while Republicans have three — plus a well-funded political newcomer running in the 4th District.
Party officials and political observers point to the 1st District as the Democrats’ best hope for a win. That race pits Democrat Scott Ellington against Republican incumbent Rep. Rick Crawford. Both are from Jonesboro.
During redistricting last year, three counties from southeastern Arkansas that historically vote Democratic were added to the 1st District. Democrats also point to a Talk Business-Hendrix College poll from April that found 26 percent of respondents approved of Crawford’s job performance, 28 percent disapproved and 46 percent had no opinion.
“The way that that district has changed, and having a strong candidate from the population base in Scott Ellington, combined with Rick Crawford’s unpopular record … makes the 1st Congressional District a prime opportunity to pick back up a seat in the fall,” said state Democratic Party spokeswoman Candace Martin.
Doyle Webb, chairman of the state Republican Party, noted that the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not designated the 1st District race — or any Arkansas congressional race — as a “red-to-blue” race.
The DCCC gives that designation to races that it chooses to devote resources to because it considers them among Democrats’ top chances to win seats from Republicans.
“If they think it’s so winnable, why haven’t they already made it … a red-to-blue?” Webb said.
The DCCC has designated the 1st and 4th district races as emerging races, meaning it considers them increasingly competitive and possible contenders for red-to-blue status.
“Democratic candidates in Arkansas have demonstrated that these seats could be in play,” said DCCC spokeswoman Stephanie Formas. “We continue to assess and make announcements about candidates who’ve made the additional step in their campaigns to earn red-to-blue.”
Ellington narrowly defeated state Rep. Clark Hall of Marvell in last week’s Democratic primary runoff in the 1st District. Ellington won most of the counties in the northern portion of the district, while Hall won most of the counties in the southern portion.
“(Ellington) needs two things,” said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College and a member of the executive committee of the state Democratic Party. “He needs the resources of television advertising, which is basically to stay even with the messaging with Crawford, and that’ll help him hold his place in the north to some degree. But he’s got to build relationships in the south to help him actually get people to the polls.”
At this point, Crawford enjoys a significant fundraising advantage, having raised $830,000 and spent $440,000. Ellington has raised nearly $75,000, $73,000 of which he spent on the primary contest.
In the 4th District, Democratic state Sen. Jimmy Jeffress of Louann faces Republican Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, a Harvard Law School graduate and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Cotton currently enjoys a significant fundraising advantage. He has raised more than $1 million, much it from out of state, and has spent about $400,000. Jeffress has raised about $38,000 and spent $31,000.
For the Democratic primary race, Jeffress bought no television ads and had no paid campaign staff. He has said he does not expect his campaign style to change significantly for the general election.
Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University, said that if Jeffress has any advantage, it is that he is a political veteran, having served in the Legislature since 1999.
“Cotton is an untested campaigner, and Jeffress is comfortable with the Southern electorate,” he said.
Martin said Jeffress “is a longtime lawmaker and a well-known name, and he’s certainly proved that shoe leather and getting to know voters can go a long way.”
Webb said Jeffress “has raised no money. Money equates to support, and he does not have the support of the people in that district.”
In the 2nd District, Little Rock lawyer and former state legislator Herb Rule filed to run as a Democrat after former legislator Jay Martin, who had been expected to run, declined. Rule is challenging Republican incumbent Tim Griffin of Little Rock.
“We have a good candidate in Herb Rule, who has a history of working in a bipartisan manner under Gov. (Winthrop) Rockefeller,” Martin said.
Rockefeller, a Republican, was governor from 1967-1971.
Webb dismissed the notion of Rule as a credible candidate.
“They were unable to find a candidate in the 2nd District and they had to settle for Herb Rule,” he said.
In the 3rd District, a GOP stronghold, Republican incumbent Steve Womack of Rogers faces Democratic challenger Ken Aden of Russellville, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We have a strong candidate in Ken Aden, a veteran, a former businessman,” Martin said. “He has been running a very hard campaign and challenging a number of Congressman Womack’s votes that have not been in the best interests of the district.”
Webb said the 3rd District is “locked for Steve Womack.”
“He’s been a great congressman, he’s in the leadership team,” he said. “Hard-working Arkansas taxpayers are not going to vote Democrat this year. They’re going to vote Republican in all four congressional races.”
The general election will be Nov. 6.
Reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.