GOP Looks to Fall to Complete Arkansas Turnover

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Wednesday, May. 21, 2014 7:24 am  

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. (left), and Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

LITTLE ROCK — Republicans are shifting their attention to the fall as they attempt to complete a takeover of Arkansas' top offices, after the party's establishment picks prevailed in several heated primary matchups.

Tuesday's primary highlighted Arkansas' transformation from a Democratic stronghold in the south to a state where Republicans have made gains up and down the ballot. The crowded GOP races for congressional and statewide offices contrasted from past years when Republicans struggled to even field candidates for top posts.

Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson clinched their parties' nominations for governor Tuesday, with the ex-congressmen easily dispatching lesser-known, unfunded rivals. Neither Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor nor his Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, faced primary opposition.

The primary solidified a governor's race that Hutchinson and Ross have effectively been running for nearly a year. They have sparred over tax cut plans and have tried to paint each other as Washington insiders. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is unable to run for re-election due to term limits.

Ross, who defeated substitute teacher Lynette Bryant, signaled he hoped to win over independents and Republican-leaning voters.

"I'm not running to be governor of the Democratic Party. I'm not running for governor of the Republican Party," Ross said. "I'm running to be governor of all the people of this great state, and I'm committed to working with anyone and everyone committed to making this state an even better place to call home."

Hutchinson said he believed Republicans would unite behind him this fall after his win over Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman.

"I think we've learned a great deal as a party about how to conduct primaries enthusiastically and aggressively, but united in the end for a common goal," Hutchinson said.

Voters indicated their choices weren't necessarily locked in for the fall.

"I'm going to kind of watch both of them now and then, but I think any one of them will be a great governor," said Kathy Smoke, a paralegal from White Hall who voted for Hutchinson in the GOP primary.

The same was true for the Senate race, where Cotton and Pryor have been engaged in a heated and expensive ad war since last fall. Betty Abbott, who cast a ballot in the Democratic primary in Conway, said the negative ads in the race were discouraging and left her uncertain which candidate she'll back.

"When they get dirty, they just turn me off," Abbott said.

Little Rock banking executive French Hill clinched the GOP nomination in a three-way race for a U.S. House seat, while state Rep. Bruce Westerman won the primary for a south Arkansas congressional seat. U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin easily won his party's nomination for lieutenant governor, a mostly ceremonial post he sought months after opting against seeking a third term in Congress.

The election also marked the first statewide enforcement of Arkansas' new voter ID law, which Republicans pushed through during the 2013 legislative session after claiming a majority for the first time since Reconstruction.

The number of contested GOP races was a twist for Arkansas, where Democrats were once so entrenched that the general election used to be effectively decided in the spring primary. In addition to controlling the statehouse, Republicans hold all but one of the seats in its congressional delegation.

Hill defeated state Rep. Ann Clemmer and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds in the GOP race for central Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District, which is currently held by Griffin. He'll face former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays, who didn't have an opponent in the Democratic primary.

Westerman won the Republican nomination for the 4th Congressional District, defeating energy investor Tommy Moll. Cotton currently represents the district, which stretches across southern and western Arkansas. Westerman will face former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt, who won the Democratic nomination unopposed.

Voter reaction was mixed to Arkansas' compromise plan to expand Medicaid under the federal health law. One supporter of the private option was voted out of the Senate, while another held back a challenger to win the GOP nomination for his seat. A state legislator who drummed up Republican support for the expansion was headed to the June 10 runoff election against a staunch opponent of the private option.

Republicans also faced an extended fight for the Republican nomination for attorney general, with Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling advancing to the runoff. The winner will face Democratic state Rep. Nate Steel in the fall.

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