Arkansas Election A Test of GOP Momentum in State

LITTLE ROCK — With control of the Legislature and a GOP sweep of the state's four congressional seats potentially within reach, Republicans in Arkansas are heading into Tuesday's election ready to test whether the party's momentum in recent years will break what had been a reliable Democratic stronghold in the South.

It's been a long-elusive goal for Republicans, who have regularly pointed to signs of Arkansas turning into a two-party state only to see their hopes dashed in the next election. Though the party's made inroads over the years and Republicans have held the governor's mansion three times since Reconstruction, Arkansas is the only state from the old Confederacy where Democrats control both the state Legislature and the governor's office.

Republicans insist that's going to change Tuesday, in an election where both parties have been focused on dozens of state House and Senate districts they believe are the key to a legislative majority.

"It is not a blip," state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said. "Arkansas is realigning with the Republican Party because Arkansans are conservatives."

Democrats currently hold a 53-46 majority in the House, with one vacant seat, and a 20-15 majority in the Senate, while Republicans hold three of the state' four congressional seats. While Republicans have been boasting about their strength heading into the election, Democrats say they believe the party will maintain its legislative majority.

Republicans are crediting President Barack Obama's poor popularity rating, the party's infrastructure around the state and changing demographics for putting the GOP on the verge of a legislative takeover. Democrats have been relying on Gov. Mike Beebe's popularity and argue that Republicans — aided by outside groups spending big on races around the state — are trying to nationalize the fight for the statehouse.

Republicans and Democrats agree that Obama's unpopularity has helped drive the GOP's growth in the state over the past few years. Though Arkansas is a flyover state in the presidential election, the Democratic president's image is seen frequently on slick mailers sent out for legislative races.

At a pre-election rally for Republicans last week, former Gov. Mike Huckabee joked that the party should give the president an award for helping the GOP grow in Arkansas. Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson said the president has helped Republicans make the link between national and state policies affecting the state.

It's a challenge that Hutchinson, who lost the governor's race to Beebe six years ago, knows all too well.

"I think the obstacle has been the long-held traditions of Arkansas that have separated national politics from state politics. In past years, (Arkansans) could vote Republican for the U.S. Senate and Republican for governor but it was very easy to go in and cast your ballot for a Democratic legislator," said Hutchinson, who is widely viewed as a potential candidate for governor in 2014. "That's no longer how the voters feel."

Recent polling may back up that belief. The University of Arkansas' annual Arkansas Poll last month found that for the third year in a row, voters who identified themselves as independent said they identified more with the Republican Party.

Democrats, however, have said they're not going down without a fight. Beebe set a series of rallies in northeast Arkansas this weekend to urge voters to support Democrats in Tuesday's election, and the party has pointed to Beebe's successes with a majority Democrat Legislature as the argument for keeping control.

"The record is there and we think voters are going to focus on that record," state Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said.

The party also stepped up its criticism of three Republican statehouse candidates who have come under fire for racially charged writings. GOP officials have said the party wouldn't give any more money to state Rep. Jon Hubbard, Rep. Loy Mauch or House hopeful Charlie Fuqua, but haven't called on the three to end their candidacies.

Challenges remain even if Republicans win the Statehouse and the four congressional seats. The first will be governing, especially after an election where some Republican moderates were defeated by more conservative challengers in the spring primary.

"It's easier to climb the mountain than staying on top of the mountain," said Dennis Milligan, former state party chairman and Saline County clerk. "I think that we've got to go in and govern. We've never done this before."

But the bigger test will occur in 2014, where the GOP has said it wants to build on its gains by taking the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

Both could be uphill fights. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat and the only announced gubernatorial candidate, has already raised more than $1 million for his bid. Pryor, who announced earlier this year he would run for a third term, enjoyed the support of more than half the voters surveyed in the UA poll.

Tuesday's results could also be an early test for Republican Congressman Tim Griffin, who is viewed as a potential rival to Pryor's re-election bid. Griffin faces a challenge from Democrat Herb Rule in the race for central Arkansas' 2nd district.

The one outcome Republicans are talking about the least is a potential split decision where they win one chamber but not the other. Publicly, most GOP leaders paint winning either chamber as a step forward. But they also acknowledge it would be a letdown for a party primed for more dramatic gains.

"I'm going to be extremely disappointed if we don't come out of this thing controlling both ends of the state Capitol and Mark Pryor right in our sights," Milligan said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)