Is Arkansas Really the Land of Opportunity for Democrats?

Stuart Rothenberg December 18, 2013 · 3:33 PM EST

When we think of political battlegrounds, states like Ohio and Florida come to mind. But every so often, a small state becomes a partisan political battleground.

This cycle, that’s Arkansas — about as unlikely a state as you might imagine.

While Democrats see Arkansas as a place to mount a counterattack after a series of defeats, Republicans believe that it will be the Democrats’ Waterloo. Eleven months from now we will know who is right.

Four races are worth watching, and if Democrats can’t win with the candidates they have, they will have every reason to write off the state in the future.

In the Senate race, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor hopes to turn back a challenge from Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. The contest has already received plenty of ink locally and nationally, and Pryor is widely seen as the single most vulnerable senator seeking re-election next year.

Pryor has carved out a relatively moderate record, and he has already aired two TV ads affirming his support for gun owners’ rights and the role of the Bible in his life. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln got clobbered in 2010, and if Pryor can’t hold onto his seat next year, no Democrat can win a high-profile federal race in Arkansas.

But the Natural State also should see a competitive and lively gubernatorial race between two former members of Congress. Republican Asa Hutchinson, a former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration and undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is widely regarded as the favorite to win the GOP nomination, though he must first win a primary. In 2006, Hutchinson lost the gubernatorial race to the state’s current governor, Democrat Mike Beebe, who is not eligible to seek re-election.

The Democratic gubernatorial nominee will be former Rep. Mike Ross, who served six terms in Congress. He chose not to seek re-election in 2012. Ross, who also served in the state Senate, was a Blue Dog in Washington, and he cites his opposition to Obamacare and his consistently high ratings from the National Rifle Association to demonstrate that he is not a “national” Democrat.

In Cotton’s open 4th District, Democrats have recruited James Lee Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a President Bill Clinton appointee. Witt ran Arkansas’ Office of Emergency Services before his FEMA appointment.

Republicans are headed for a primary in the 4th District, which was held by Ross before it was redrawn before the 2012 elections. State House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman has already entered the GOP race, but the state’s filing deadline is not until March 1.

Finally, Democrats are talking up their chances in the Little Rock-based 2nd District, which was left open when two-term Republican Rep. Tim Griffin shocked observers and announced that he would not run for re-election.

The district was Obama’s best in the state (though he drew only 44 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2012), and the combination of white urban voters — it’s the wealthiest, most educated and least rural district in the state — and African-Americans (who constitute 22 percent of residents, according to Politics in America 2014) gives Democrats a decent base that the party doesn’t have in many other parts of the state.

Democrats have rallied around the candidacy of Patrick Henry Hays, a former state representative who also served as mayor of North Little Rock. As in the 4th District, Republicans seem headed for a primary.

While Democrats have recruited some credible hopefuls and have opportunities in the state, it’s hard to believe that they have much of a chance of sweeping four competitive contests. This is a state where Barack Obama drew less than 37 percent of the vote in 2012 and just under 39 percent of the vote four years earlier. So where are their best opportunities?

The gubernatorial race would appear to be the Democrats’ best chance.

Ross did have a reputation as a moderate Democrat during his years on Capitol Hill, and he spent more than a decade representing one quarter of the state in Congress. More importantly, he is running for a state office, not a federal one, and since voters evaluate candidates differently when they are seeking non-federal office, Ross would seem to have the best chance of the bunch.

After Ross probably comes Pryor. Senate candidates generally get more attention and spend more money than House hopefuls, and that means voters know more about them. Pryor’s name is a good one in the state, and he has already run ads defining himself and painting a picture for voters of Republican Cotton. If the Democrat’s campaign can succeed in defining the choice facing voters, he has a chance to win.

The two House seats look to be a heavy lift for Democrats.

With candidates for governor and senator spending heavily in all media markets (and super PACs advertising in the Senate race), House candidates will have trouble competing for attention. That should be particularly the case for Witt in the 4th District, which is the state’s largest House seat geographically.

Through his connection with Clinton, Witt was something of a star in Arkansas politics. But the state has changed over the past dozen years, and the 4th District, which was made more Republican when it was redrawn to reach up into the very Republican northwest quadrant of the state, looks very hard for any Democrat.

Demographically, the 2nd District looks like a better opportunity, but it is heavily polarized and a challenge for any Democrat in a difficult environment.

Of course, Democratic chances for both House seats would improve if nasty GOP primaries in one or both were to produce weak nominees. But we won’t know about that until the primary on May 20 or the runoff on June 10.