Democrats Look for Mini-Wave in Arkansas in 2014

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 23, 2013 · 9:44 AM EDT

Barack Obama received just 39 percent of the vote in Arkansas in the last presidential race, but that’s not stopping Democratic optimism in the Razorback State in 2014.

Even though next year’s midterm elections began as a referendum on the president, Democrats believe they can re-elect Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, hold the open governorship and take over at least one House district — particularly now that GOP Rep. Tim Griffin has announced his unexpected decision not to seek re-election.

Griffin’s 2nd District is the the most Democratic in Arkansas, but it’s all relative in a largely Republican state at the federal level. Obama received 43 percent in 2012 and 44 percent in 2008 in that district. John Kerry received nearly 48 percent there in 2004, which is just one piece of evidence of a higher ceiling for a white Democratic candidate.

In spite of the midterm dynamic, Democrats may have a better chance in a non-presidential year in Arkansas, when races have been more competitive. Recent history shows Democrats consistently do well in the 2nd District in state races.

In 2010, Republican Mark Darr narrowly defeated Democrat Shane Broadway, 51 percent to 49 percent, in the race for lieutenant governor. But Broadway carried the 2nd District with 56 percent. That same year, in the race for secretary of State, Republican Mark Martin defeated Democrat Pat O’Brien 51 percent to 49 percent, yet O’Brien carried the 2nd with 55 percent.

The downside for Democrats is that federal races are much more challenging. Griffin was first elected in 2010, 58 percent to 38 percent, against African-American state Sen. Joyce Elliott. (He was re-elected with 55 percent last November.)

Also in 2010, GOP Rep. John Boozman carried the district 54 percent to 42 percent over Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln. The good news for Democrats is that her 12-point loss in the 2nd District was less than her 21-point loss statewide.

Both parties will likely host primaries next year in the open seat race to replace Griffin. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter has been mentioned for months as a potential Democratic candidate. But it remains to be seen how he’d perform in the district after running to Lincoln’s left in the 2010 primary.

For now, the open seat gives Democrats a better opportunity, so we’re changing the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating of the race to Lean Republican from Safe Republican.

The Senate race is much more clearly defined. Rep. Tom Cotton has a virtually clear path to the GOP nomination and the general election, where he will face Pryor. After getting a free pass in 2008, Pryor is consistently polling in the mid-40s in ballot tests and could be considered the most vulnerable senator up for re-election next year. The Rothenberg Political Report rates this race a Tossup.

Democrats are also trying to hold onto the governorship after two terms of Gov. Mike Beebe. Mike Ross initially declined to run, but the former Democratic congressman is in the race now and is out to a tremendous fundraising start. Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson is the front-runner on the Republican side, but his campaign has been underwhelming thus far. But, as with the other races, Obama looms over the gubernatorial contest, even though he won’t be on the ballot next year.

The gubernatorial race is rated Tossup/Tilt Republican by Rothenberg Political Report.