Only two cycles removed from defeating a Republican incumbent in a swing southern Arkansas Congressional seat, Rep. Mike Ross (D) has emerged as a fundraising force in the House, doling out dollars as he contemplates his political future.
Since finding out he would not be opposed by a Republican this fall, Ross has handed out roughly $300,000 to House incumbents and challengers as well as to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee through both his campaign account and his newly formed leadership political action committee, Our Congress PAC.
Ross has not ignored his home state either, as he recently donated $1,000 to each of the 30 Democratic Members of the state House and Senate who have Republican opponents this fall. In October 2003, Ross chipped in $15,000 to the Arkansas Democratic Party.
“I was tempted to sit on the sidelines because I was unopposed,” Ross conceded.
He reconsidered because of the support he received from the DCCC and the Congressional Black Caucus during his 2000 race against then-Rep. Jay Dickey (R) and their subsequent rematch in 2002.
Another motivation for Ross’ generosity stems from his political ambitions.
Ross is regularly mentioned — along with Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe (D) — as a candidate for governor in 2006, when the seat will be open for the first time in 10 years. Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller is the odds-on Republican gubernatorial candidate.
Ross “is being a smart guy because he knows that the perceived frontrunner is the attorney general,” said Richard Beardon, a Republican political consultant based in Little Rock.
Ross sounded like a candidate in an interview Tuesday, pointing out that he is a fifth- generation Arkansan and is “tired of seeing us ranked 48th or 49th in so many categories.”
He also noted that his southern Arkansas district takes in five of the state’s six media markets, ensuring that he has a broader name-identification base than most sitting Congressmen.
Beardon acknowledged that Ross is well known in southern Arkansas but “people in Jonesboro don’t have a clue who he is.”
Jonesboro is in the northeastern portion of the state, which is represented by Rep. Marion Berry (D).
Ross remains coy about his future intentions even while acknowledging he has an eye on a statewide bid.
Running for governor “is something I would love to do some day,” said Ross. “Sometime next year I will sit down with my family and figure out where I can best serve Arkansas.”
Ross insisted that his decision does not depend on whether Democrats take back the House next month — a long-shot proposition — but other knowledgeable sources said the Arkansas Member’s committee assignments in the 109th Congress could be a major factor in what race he chooses.
Ross has long pined for a spot on the Energy & Commerce Committee, one of only three exclusive House committees. He has even written letters to other Democratic Members expressing his interest in a seat on the committee.
Regardless of whether he stays in the House or decides to run for governor next cycle, Ross clearly has made a name for himself since coming to Congress in 2001.
In his first race against Dickey, Ross took advantage of the Democratic lean of the district and a backlash against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton — an Arkansas native — to become the only challenger outside of California to oust a Republican incumbent.
Ross claimed outside groups — led by the National Republican Congressional Committee — spent $5 million to defeat him in that race.
Dickey sought to avenge his loss in 2002, but his campaign never got started and he lost badly to Ross, 61 percent to 39 percent.
Republicans failed to find a challenger to Ross this cycle.
Without opposition, Ross has begun to dig into his campaign war chest, which showed $480,000 on hand at the end of June.
As of Sept. 30, Ross had given $175,000 directly to the DCCC and another $87,000 to 50 Democratic Members and candidates from his personal campaign committee.
Our Congress PAC, which Ross founded in June, has doled out an additional $37,000 to 20 endangered House incumbents.
Ross also has contributed to several of his colleagues running for the Senate, including Reps. Chris John (La.) and Brad Carson (Okla.).
He has done call time into targeted districts to benefit Democrats candidates; on Monday he made calls on behalf of Nebraska state Sen. Matt Connealy (D), who is seeking the open 1st district seat.
Aside from providing fundraising aid, Ross has loaned a number of his top staffers to targeted races around the country.
His chief of staff is managing Rep. Charlie Stenholm’s (D-Texas) race against fellow Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) in the 19th district, while his communications director is managing Texas Rep. Nick Lampson’s (D) race against former Judge Ted Poe (R).
“Time and again Mike Ross has stepped up to the plate for House Democrats this cycle,” said Greg Speed, DCCC communications director.