Outside Groups Spend Big on Arkansas Statehouse Races

LITTLE ROCK — The involvement of outside groups in the fight for Arkansas' Legislature, where Republicans are trying to win control for the first time since Reconstruction, is taking center stage during the final campaign days in a state where the presidential contest and congressional campaigns are mostly sidelined.

From slick mailers to television and newspaper ads, voters around the state have been bombarded with messages in dozens of state House and Senate districts that both parties believe are keys to a legislative majority. They're filling a vacuum left in Arkansas, where Republican Mitt Romney is widely expected to win the state's six electoral votes and the GOP is favored in congressional matchups.

The development alarms Democrats, who say they're being outspent by conservative advocacy groups whose nonprofit status shields them from having to disclose their donors.

"I can't compete with all the money they're putting out there," said state Sen. David Wyatt, a Democrat whose re-election bid is one of the most closely watched legislative matchups in the state. Wyatt is running against Rep. Linda Collins-Smith, a freshman lawmaker who switched from Democrat to Republican last year.

Wyatt has been targeted regularly in mailings by Americans for Prosperity, which expects to spend at least $400,000 this year in 32 House and Senate districts around Arkansas. The group's state director, Teresa Oelke, said it has spent more than $900,000 over the past two years in the state.

Though other groups have aired ads and sent out mailers in the state, including Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition and the 60 Plus Association, Americans for Prosperity has played the most high-profile and high-dollar role in the fight for Arkansas' Legislature.

Democrats have been aided to a smaller extent by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which has sent out mailers in some legislative districts. Republicans have criticized the DLCC, which received $200,000 from the state Democratic Party late last year.

Americans for Prosperity, formed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has come under fire from Gov. Mike Beebe and other top Democrats. The conservative group has sent more than 1.1 million mailers in Arkansas, many of them criticizing Democrats for supporting tax increases and trying to tie them to President Barack Obama, who remains deeply unpopular in Arkansas.

Beebe accused the group of trashing the state in a September ad that claimed Arkansas residents were fleeing because of high taxes and government spending. The group aired the ad throughout Arkansas as part of a $275,000 ad buy. Beebe has appeared in television ads paid for by the Democratic Party hoping to counter Americans for Prosperity's impact on the House and Senate races.

"When you get six or seven mailers and it calls the legislator something that he's not or makes allegation that are damaging to that legislator that aren't true, it's going to resonate with some people," Beebe said. "Those legislators don't have the funds to counteract act that. So, yeah, there's a fear that that works."

Oelke dismisses the idea that Americans for Prosperity is an outside group, noting that it has 64,000 members around the state, and said opponents are trying to use it as an easy target rather than talk about the policy issues they're raising.

"Of course politicians would rather create a conspiracy theory than discuss the policies that their constituents seem to have a strong disagreement on," Oelke said.

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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