Top Races Take Back Seat in Arkansas Primary

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' expensive and nationally watched campaigns for governor and the U.S. Senate took a back seat to dozens of congressional, statewide and legislative matchups on Tuesday as voters headed to the polls to decide the state's various primary races.

Neither Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor nor his Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, faces a primary challenge as they gear up for one of the most high-profile Senate races in the country. Two former congressmen who are clear front-runners in their parties' bids for Arkansas governor - Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson - face lesser-known rivals.

Instead, the fight for two open congressional seats highlight an election featuring heated Republican battles up and down the ballot, in a state where the election used to be decided in the Democratic primary. Democrats this year have no contested congressional primaries and the gubernatorial primary is the party's only statewide contest.

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Secretary of State Mark Martin predicts 20 percent of Arkansas' 1.6 million voters will cast a ballot Tuesday, the first statewide test of a new voter ID law. A state judge has ruled the measure unconstitutional, but has suspended his ruling and says he won't prevent enforcement of the law during the primary.

Laura Labay, Martin's spokeswoman, said no problems were reported Tuesday morning.

"Things are running smoothly, kind of how we expected," Labay said. "We put a lot of effort into letting people know they need their photo ID ... and I think that paid off."

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At Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, legal secretary Marilyn Keps, 57, said showing her ID wasn't a problem but she didn't like doing it.

"I wanted to say something's snide about it but it's a bunch of little grandmas in there. They can't do anything about it," Keps said.

Pine Bluff resident Robert Morehead, 78, said a person's signature should suffice.

"I've been voting here in Pine Bluff since 1960. There's not a poll worker up there that does not know me," Morehead said Tuesday.

Voting at a church in North Little Rock, 64-year old Garvin Greenland said he favors the new law.

"I don't want just anyone voting, Garvin Greenland said.

Preliminary numbers indicate more than 103,000 early and absentee votes were cast, Labay said, compared to slightly more than 121,000 early and absentee votes in 2010.

Banking executive French Hill said he was confident he could win the Republican party's nomination outright in central Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District, while state Rep. Ann Clemmer and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds hoped to force him into a runoff. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Pat Hays in the fall.

U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, who holds the seat, is seeking the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in a race with state Reps. Andy Mayberry and Debra Hobbs. The winner faces Democrat John Burkhalter.

The fight for Cotton's 4th Congressional district seat in southern and western Arkansas features energy investor Tommy Moll and state Rep. Bruce Westerman, who argued over who has the best credentials to fight the federal health care overhaul law. The winner will face Democrat James Lee Witt.

Other top races include the fight for the Republican nomination for attorney general between Patricia Nation, Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling. The winner will face Democrat Rep. Nate Steel.

Ross is running against substitute teacher Lynette Bryant in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, while Hutchinson faces Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman in the GOP primary. The two ex-congressmen have effectively been running a general election campaign since last year and have mostly ignored their primary rivals.

The primary will test just how divisive the state's compromise Medicaid expansion is for Republicans, with several legislative primaries pitting supporters of the "private option" against opponents of the plan. The plan to use federal money to purchase private insurance for the poor was approved as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law last year.

AP reporters Chuck Bartels in Little Rock, Christina Huynh in Pine Bluff, Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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