Arkansas Candidates Make Final Pitch Before Election

LITTLE ROCK — Candidates fanned across Arkansas on Monday making their final pitches to voters before an election that could hand Republicans a majority in the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

Both parties kept their focus on dozens of state House and Senate races that could be keys to a majority in either chamber as they neared Tuesday's election, with Republicans favored in the fight for the state's congressional seats. President Barack Obama, who hasn't visited the state since 2006, is widely expected to lose Arkansas' six electoral votes to Republican Mitt Romney. State GOP officials are counting on the president's unpopularity to translate into victories at the Democrat-controlled Statehouse.

"That's a clear choice for Arkansans," state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said. "The Democrats are enablers of the policies of Barack Obama and the Republicans will fight those intrusive policies."

Democrats hold a 53-46 majority in the state House, with one vacancy, and a 20-15 majority in the state Senate. Arkansas is the only former Confederate state where Democrats control the state Legislature and the governor's mansion.

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and other top party leaders have tried in recent days to counter outside conservative groups that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on districts around the state. The most prominent is Americans for Prosperity, which has spent more than $900,000 over the past two years in the state and has sent more than 1.1 million mailers.

"They're trying to blur the lines between national and state politics," state Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said. "When you spend that kind of money to create distractions and mislead and misinform folks, yeah, it's an obstacle."

Republicans have noted that Democrats have been assisted by its own outside group, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. The committee, which received $200,000 from the state party late last year, has been sending out mailers and airing television ads in districts throughout the state.

Democrats also tried to keep the focus on the racially charged writings of Republican state Reps. Jon Hubbard and Loy Mauch and GOP House hopeful Charlie Fuqua.

Hubbard wrote in a self-published book that slavery was a "blessing in disguise" for African-Americans. Mauch, in letters to newspapers, defended the Confederacy and declared his belief that Abraham Lincoln was a war criminal. Fuqua, a former legislator challenging an incumbent Democrat in east Arkansas, wrote in a self-published book that he believes all Muslims should be deported and that disobedient children must be "permanently removed" from society.

Former President Bill Clinton appears in a radio ad that criticizes the writings of all three, and the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus on Monday called on GOP lawmakers to disavow their comments. The party has said it won't contribute any more funding to the three.

Webb said he did not believe the writings would hurt the party's bid for a majority.

Tuesday's election will also decide whether Republicans will control all four of the state's U.S. House seats, with Republicans hoping to take over the south Arkansas seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Congressman Mike Ross.

State Sen. Gene Jeffress, a Democrat who has lagged financially in his bid against Republican Tom Cotton, said he was still hopeful that his cash-strapped campaign would prevail in Tuesday's vote.

"If I do win this, I guarantee you there will be waves across Washington D.C. and the nation," Jeffress said.

Cotton, an Army veteran and former management consultant, said he believed he would pick up support from traditionally Democratic voters in the 4th District.

"I think Arkansans of all parties want to elect a conservative to serve in Congress to either repair the damage by Barack Obama if he's defeated, or stop any more damage if he's re-elected," Cotton said.

The election also pits Democrat Scott Ellington, a local prosecutor, against Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford in the bid for the 1st Congressional District in east Arkansas. Ellington helped negotiate the deal last year that freed three men who were convicted as teenagers in the 1993 murders of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis. Crawford, who was elected in 2010 partly on a pledge to oppose any tax increases, proposed hiking taxes on millionaires earlier this year in exchange for a balanced budget amendment.

In central Arkansas, Democrat Herb Rule challenged Republican Rep. Tim Griffin in the 2nd Congressional District. Republican Rep. Steve Womack did not face any major party opposition since his Democratic challenger withdrew his candidacy over questions about his military record.

Voters will also have a say on three ballot measures, including a proposal to allow patients with certain conditions to buy medical marijuana. If approved, it would make Arkansas the first southern state to legalize medical marijuana.

Secretary of State Mark Martin has predicted 65 percent of the state's 1.6 million registered voters will cast a ballot in Tuesday's election. Early voting remained busy through Monday, with many sites reporting lines throughout the day.

More than 435,000 people had voted early in the state by late Monday afternoon.

Tommy Burton, who cast his ballot in Lonoke County on Monday, said he believed the state was likely on the verge of handing Republicans the Legislature.

"For a long time, we've had a lot more conservative-type Democrats in office," Burton, 44, said, adding that he voted for Romney and Crawford. "And the whole Democrat Party has changed on the national level."

Thomas Hodges, a landscaper and delivery driver who also cast his ballot Monday, said he voted for Obama and Democrats across the board. Hodges, 50, praised the president's work on the economy and his decision to bail out General Motors.

"The Republicans haven't shown me anything," he said.

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