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Ross Departure Makes Arkansas Seat Tough to Hold

One day after Rep. Mike Ross surprised politicos from Little Rock, Ark., to Washington, D.C., by announcing his retirement, the Blue Dog Democrat brushed aside the notion that his move endangers his party’s hold on the seat.

In fact, the Arkansan claimed that stepping down at the end of this term was actually a boon to Democrats.

“If I vacated this seat in 2014, I think it would be very, very difficult for the Democrats to hold,” Ross said in an interview. “The fact that there’s going to be a contested open seat in a presidential election year increases Democratic chances at holding the seat.”

But looking at the demographics of the district and the recent political trends in the state, it’s hard to see how Republicans don’t have a better than even chance of flipping the seat next year.

National Republicans consider the 4th district one of their top five pickup targets this cycle. Not only did President Barack Obama get just 39 percent in the district in 2008, but the area was made more Republican under the new map passed into law earlier this year by the Democratic Legislature and governor.

“It’s one of the few spots in America where Democrats controlled redistricting and made themselves more vulnerable, rather than less,” said a Republican consultant with close knowledge of Arkansas House races.

Ross is widely expected to launch a gubernatorial bid in 2014, but he had been expected to run for one more term in the House before then.

The six-term Blue Dog said he made his decision to retire this cycle after a meeting with Gov. Mike Beebe (D) over the weekend at the governor’s mansion. It was a fitting venue considering he got his start in politics at age 19, driving Bill Clinton around on his 1982 campaign to win back the governorship.

“I went to the governor’s mansion at
8 o’clock Sunday morning and met with the governor,” Ross said. “I was pretty sure going into that meeting what I was going to do. And came out of that meeting convinced that this was the right decision for me.”

Potential candidates in the district seemed to be recovering from Monday’s surprise rather quickly.

“It sort of dropped out of the sky this morning,” state Sen. Gene Jeffress (D) said Monday.

Jeffress said after he has time to get his bearings, he will probably throw his hat in the ring. “I’m pretty sure if things work right, I’m going to do it,” he said.

He’s not alone. A handful of Republicans and Democrats are eyeing the open 4th district seat.

Other potential Democratic candidates include college chancellor Chris Thomason, state Sen. Larry Teague and U.S. attorney Conner Eldridge.

Potential GOP candidates include Beth Anne Rankin, who lost by 17 points to Ross in 2010, and state Reps. Lane Jean and Matthew Shepherd.

One GOP candidate who will almost definitely get in the race: business consultant Tom Cotton, who also serves in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was eyeing a run before Ross’ announcement and is already building a campaign team.

“I think it’s a tossup district that leans Republican,” said Richard Bearden, a Little Rock-based Republican strategist and lobbyist. He noted that in redistricting the 4th district lost two Democratic-leaning counties while picking up Republican turf.

But Democrats insist the district is not a lost cause.

“I think a Democrat can win that district. It’s got to be the right Democrat, a conservative Democrat — but they’re out there,” Little Rock-based Democratic strategist Robert McLarty said. “There’s no doubt that it’s a little weaker. But it’s still, based on all performance numbers, a very good Democratic district.”

Ross said he would have been comfortably re-elected if he had run for another term, but he was tired of the deep dysfunction and divisive partisanship that pervades Congress.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to find common ground in Washington,” Ross said. “I’ve been here 12 years. It’s been a good run. It’s someone else’s turn.”

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