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Farm Team: Arkansas Has Deep Democratic Bench but Few Opportunities

Once a bastion of Southern Democrats, the Razorback State has cut sharply against the party in recent years.

As recently as January 2011, Arkansas’ congressional delegation had five Democrats and one Republican. Now, Sen. Mark Pryor, who is up for re-election in 2014, remains as the only Democrat in the bunch. And in 2012, the GOP won control of both chambers of the state’s General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.

Despite the shift, the Democratic bench remains deep in the state, thanks to the tradition of pols like President Bill Clinton and popular Gov. Mike Beebe.

The problem for Democrats: There do not appear to be many — maybe any — winnable federal offices for ambitious members of the party this cycle, at least right now. Republican Sen. John Boozman won’t be up for re-election until 2016. And the four Republican congressmen — Reps. Rick Crawford, Tim Griffin, Steve Womack and Tom Cotton — are well-ensconced in their districts.

The best bet for Democrats to pick up one of the state’s four congressional seats appears to be if Cotton, a freshman, runs against Pryor for Senate. Washington Republicans are actively recruiting him to run.

If Cotton seeks higher office, that would open the 4th District. Although the district favors Republicans on the presidential level, former Democratic Rep. Mike Ross held the seat for 12 years. The right conservative Democrat could take it back for the party.

That person is probably state Sen. Bruce Maloch, insiders said. Maloch told CQ Roll Call he was considering a run for the seat.

Other Democrats whom Razorback State politicos mentioned for the 4th District seat include Chris Thomason, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope, and U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge.

If the 4th District becomes open, Republicans view state House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman as their favorite for the seat. Other potential GOP candidates include state Rep. Matthew J. Shepherd and two-time congressional candidate Beth Anne Rankin.

The 1st District, represented by Crawford, who is in his second term, is likely to remain in GOP hands. Still, state Rep. Marshall Wright, a Democrat, is considered a potential challenger. Additionally, Democrats ponder that eventually U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Thyer might make a run there.

Democrats might have a better chance with the seat if Crawford faces a primary. The well-funded, anti-tax Club for Growth recently aimed a website,, at finding fiscally conservative candidates to primary Crawford and others. But who, if anyone, might take on Crawford from the right remains something of an unanswered question in Arkansas GOP circles.

The 2nd District, represented by Griffin, is anchored by heavily Democratic Little Rock, which means there are a lot of Democrats who might jump at an open-seat race there. And in an open race, either party could take this seat.

Democratic names floated include businessman Franklin McLarty, the son of former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff Mack McLarty; state Sen. David Johnson; state Rep. John Charles Edwards; former state Sen. Shane Broadway; Conway Mayor Tab Townsell; and state party Chairman Will Bond.

On the Republican side, insiders said, state Sen. David J. Sanders and state Rep. Allen Kerr are among potential candidates if Griffin ever decides not to run.

The 3rd District, represented by Womack, is very Republican. Womack, 56, hasn’t ruled out a bid for Senate. But if, as expected, he sticks with the House, he’s likely to hold the district for many, many years to come.

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays.

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