Arkansas Democrats face uphill fight to win back congressional seats


LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Democrats last week saw their first candidate announce for a congressional race in an election cycle that poses tough challenges for the party that formerly dominated Arkansas politics.

Janis Percefull of Hot Springs, a 61-year-old author, historian and part-time history teacher at National Park Community College in Hot Springs, said she intends to run for Arkansas’ 4th District House seat. An unknown in political circles, Percefull said she once ran unsuccessfully for Garland County Quorum Court about 20 years ago and has had no political experience since then.

Percefull told the Arkansas News Bureau she decided to run because she wants to do something about the gridlock in Washington.

“Logjam, that’s what we’ve got,” she said. “There are people hurting. I mean, they’re hurting. We’ve just got to do something to help, and it starts in Congress.”

Percefull declined to share her thoughts on Republican incumbent Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, whom many expect to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor instead of seeking re-election, or on Democrats’ chances to win back any of the state’s four U.S. House seats from the GOP. After answering questions for about six minutes, Percefull abruptly ended the interview.

“I think I need to stop answering questions,” she said. “I have to terminate this conversation.”

Percefull said she will formally announce her candidacy in Hot Springs on Aug. 8.

“I’m not going to be answering questions at that time, but I will later,” she said.

The 4th District seat was held by Democrat Mike Ross, now a candidate for governor, for 12 years before Cotton defeated then-state Sen. Gene Jeffress, D-Louann, to win the office last year after Ross decided not to seek re-election.

Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr has said he will announce his political plans after Cotton announces his, apparently signaling that he is considering running for the 4th District seat if Cotton runs for the Senate.

If U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, seek re-election to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Districts, respectively, and Cotton or Darr becomes the GOP nominee in the 4th District, then the GOP will have a prominent figure in each congressional race. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats will do the same.

“Democrats have a weaker farm system right now than they have had, arguably, in their history here in Arkansas,” said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University.

“In part it’s a function of term limits, but in part it’s simply a function of the changing partisan loyalties here in Arkansas. The Republicans have been far more effective in engaging younger, ambitious candidates to enter the arena. That’s not to say the Democrats have an empty bench; it’s simply not as strong of a bench as it once was,” said Bass, who identifies himself as a Democrat.

Candace Martin, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said she expects to see “a couple of strong candidates” announce for congressional seats in the coming months.

Democrats are “well positioned to take back congressional seats during this next cycle,” she said. “You have incumbent Republican congressmen who have been part of one of the most dysfunctional Congresses that we have ever seen in our lifetime. They have become the do-nothing Congress, and people are ready to see things move forward — things like the farm bill. The only way that is going to happen is if we elected new leadership, and Arkansas in particular is ready to do that.”

David Ray, spokesman for the Republican Party of Arkansas, said the GOP has a strong likelihood of retaining all four U.S. House seats.

He said that in addition to Darr, several other Republicans are interested in running for the 4th District seat if Cotton runs for the Senate. Democrats, meanwhile, have floated the names of several potential congressional candidates who ultimately decided to pass on running, he said.

“I think that’s indicative of the fact that they know it’s a very steep, uphill climb for them to win back one of these congressional seats,” he said.

Ray said he believes Democrats are having difficulty recruiting candidates because “any Democrat that wants to run for Congress is going to be saddled with the baggage of their national party. Any Democrat that runs for Congress is going to have to explain to the voters why their first vote would be to make Nancy Pelosi House speaker again.”

Martin said several Democratic state legislators have decided that the best thing they can do for their constituents is to run for re-election.

“I think people see a real opportunity to for us to win back the (state) House,” she said.

Republicans won a majority of seats in the state Legislature last year for the first time since Reconstruction. They control 51 of the 100 House seats and 21 of the 35 Senate seats.