Outside Groups Spend Big on Arkansas Statehouse Races

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 2:26 pm  

The logo for Americans for Prosperity, which expects to spend at least $400,000 this year in 32 House and Senate districts around Arkansas.

The group's involvement isn't just rankling Democrats. Americans for Prosperity also factored into three hotly contested state Senate primaries earlier this year, with the group criticizing three longtime Republican lawmakers who had voted for some tax increases.

"Their mode was a cleansing to get rid of any Republicans who thought independently and represented their people," said former state Rep. Rick Green, who lost in his bid against Sen. Bruce Holland in the GOP primary for a state Senate seat. Green is now backing Holland's Democratic challenger, Rep. Tracy Pennartz, in next week's election.

Not all Democrats are distancing themselves from the group either. Americans for Prosperity has sent out mailers in support of Rep. James McLean, a two-term Democrat from Batesville who's in the middle of a re-election fight with Republican challenger Charlie Fuqua. The pieces praise McLean for his opposition to state-run health exchanges under the federal health care law.

McLean said he appreciates the group's backing, which he says has helped in his tight race.

"It just gets the message out that I've been supportive of causes that are important to them and I've been someone who represents the feelings and concerns of my constituency," he said.

The involvement of outside groups isn't a new thing in Arkansas, where pro-business and labor groups two years ago spent millions in the heated Democratic primary between Sen. Blanche Lincoln and challenger Bill Halter. Lincoln survived the primary, but lost the general election.

It's also not limited to legislative contests this year. The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project has contributed nearly $300,000 to the campaign pushing for a ballot measure that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Whether this becomes the norm in state legislative contests is unclear. Oelke said Americans for Prosperity will focus its future efforts on wherever it sees policies that threaten "economic freedom."

But, she added: "I certainly don't see us shrinking or being less active as a state chapter."

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