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Steep Slog for Democrats to Win Back Arkansas

Democrats looking to pick up a couple of congressional seats in the Republican state of Arkansas still believe in a place called Hope.

They hope down-ticket Democrats will fare better in a midterm cycle without the president on the ballot. They hope the state’s historically Democratic DNA — epitomized by President Bill Clinton, born in Hope, Ark. — still matters. And they hope the personality and platform of their candidates carry more weight than party.

But Democrats face a steep climb to win any of the state’s four House seats in 2014. That’s bad news for the House minority, which is counting on winning these types of formerly Democratic strongholds to net the 17 seats necessary to get the speaker’s gavel.

Just a couple of years ago, Democrats occupied every spot in the Arkansas federal delegation except one. Today, Republicans control both chambers of the Arkansas General Assembly and five out of six federal-level positions.

Democrats and Republicans in the state said the 2010 election cycle fundamentally shifted the dynamics of Arkansas, making it more favorable to Republicans over the long term.

“Arkansas has changed,” said Arkansas GOP consultant Clint Reed, a former executive director of the state party. “Politically, demographically, it’s moving to a more Republican/conservative state.”

The state’s seismic political change came quickly. As recently as January 2011, the congressional delegation boasted five Democrats and one Republican. Last year, the GOP took control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.

Privately, Democratic insiders acknowledge to CQ Roll Call that they haven’t seen signs the pendulum is swinging back their way.

“There’s not a lot of agitation for change,” said an Arkansas Democratic operative who has worked on multiple federal races and was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “None of these [congressmen] are particularly popular, but their politics are right where their voters want them to be.”

Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is bullish, eyeing three seats in the state. DCCC spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement that “Democratic candidates have a path to victory and can lead a Democratic comeback in Arkansas in 2014.”

Theoretically, three districts could be in play: the 1st District, held by Rep. Rick Crawford, the 2nd, held by Rep. Tim Griffin, and the 4th, held by freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, all Republicans.

On paper, there is a case to be made that each of these seats might be vulnerable. But in reality, each incumbent appears to be in comfortable shape.

Although it’s still early in the cycle, Democrats look to only have a realistic shot of picking up a House seat in Arkansas if one is open. That appears most likely to happen in the 4th District, where Cotton, a strong fundraiser and rising star in the party, is being recruited to run for Senate.

Asked directly whether Cotton was running for re-election or for the Senate, his spokeswoman, Caroline Rabbitt, did not answer. She said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that the congressman “is focused right now on the coming work to address our spending-driven debt crisis.”

“There will come a time for politics,” she added, “but it’s not right now.”

But Cotton’s Senate bid prospects are strong enough that local Democrats are publicly eyeing his seat.

State Sen. Bruce Maloch, a conservative Democrat who is seen as a strong potential candidate, would be the early Democratic front-runner. Last week, he confirmed he is interested in running for seat, but probably only if it’s open.

Although President Barack Obama won less than 36 percent of the 4th District vote in 2012, the district includes much of the same territory held for 12 years by former Democratic Rep. Mike Ross, who retired last cycle. In an interview last week, Maloch said he sees himself in a similar political mold.

“Arkansas is a state that continues to vote on personality and people versus party,” said longtime Arkansas Democratic consultant Robert McLarty, who thinks the 4th could be in play if it’s an open seat. “Maybe more people identify as a Republican on a generic ballot, but they still vote for the person.”

But Republicans maintain that even if the seat is open, voters won’t elect a Democrat.

“The 4th District is not going to elect anybody on President Obama’s team, no matter how much they personally like them,” said one plugged-in Arkansas Republican.

The next best target for Democrats in Arkansas would be the agriculture-heavy 1st District, which runs along the whole eastern side of the state. But incumbency and declining Democratic performance there makes this seat even more difficult for the party to pick up.

A lot can change in the 21 months before Arkansans cast their votes. If Democrats succeed in recruiting strong candidates, there’s the potential of putting a seat in play.

And they can always hope. Considering the eponymous city is in the 4th District, that’s not a bad place to start.

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