Arkansas Democrats Face Hard Road to US House Wins

LITTLE ROCK — While Democrats mapped out the districts Arkansas is using to send people to Congress through the current decade, they face a tough time winning any of the seats because of the state's shift toward Republicans and the dislike of President Barack Obama, political scientists say.

Nationwide, Republican victories aided by tea party influence in 2010 statehouse races gave the GOP control over much of the congressional redistricting process. The impact was immediate: even as Obama won re-election two years later, Republicans maintained control of a U.S. House that had nearly half of its 435 seats drawn by GOP-dominated legislatures.

The rightward shift didn't occur in Arkansas until 2012. That left congressional redistricting in Democrats' hands, but to no avail. GOP candidates swept all four U.S. House seats despite an attempt to shift Democratic areas into seats held by Republicans.

"Democrats did what they could in terms of protecting districts for Democrats in giving them a fighting chance," said Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway who ran for the state House in 2010 as a Democrat and lost.

Demography was one factor that worked against Democrats: the fastest-growing portions of the state from 2000-2010 were the Republican strongholds in northwestern Arkansas and the Little Rock suburbs.

"And the second, of course, was President Obama's unpopularity in the state. It created special challenges even in districts where Democrats have a fairer fight," Barth said. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of Arkansas voters are dissatisfied with Obama.

In 2014, of the four Republican incumbents, only two are seeking re-election to their current seat. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Rep. Tim Griffin is seeking the lieutenant governor's post.

Races for those open seats include two Democrats who already enjoy some level of name recognition and accomplishments — James Lee Witt, running in southern Arkansas, is a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Patrick Henry Hays, in central Arkansas, is a former North Little Rock mayor.

Obama's continued unpopularity remains a factor for 2014. Republican advertising already attempts to link the Democrats' top candidates to Obama, and his health reform law, but the president's name won't appear on the ballot this year.

"The questions are, is the antipathy to the president still significant as it was as last two cycles?" Barth said.

But Janine Perry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, isn't so sure the president will bear greatly on the contests.

"Unlike in 2012, Barack Obama will not be at the top of the ticket so people won't be reminded of him before they are asked to cast a ballot. ... That makes it a little bit different," Parry said.

Republicans could be harmed, too, if voters perceive them as being the main cause of last year's government shutdown.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)