Dems hold onto hope in Arkansas
© Anne Wernikoff

Democrats may be making their last stand in Arkansas.

At the beginning of the cycle, Democrats touted a dream ticket that could help rally the party back to relevance after a series of stinging losses in the state. They cheered Sen. Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorTom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Medicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation MORE’s (D) centrist profile and strong family name. In the governor’s race, they hoped former Rep. Mike Ross’s long string of successes in conservative southwest Arkansas would boost him. 

But months later, Pryor has trailed freshman Rep. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Schiff closes Dems' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Commerce Department withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon pushback: reports  MORE (R-Ark.) for much of the summer in the Razorback State and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) has had a consistent lead over Ross in the race for governor, according to public polling. Democrats’ best shot may be to pick up an open House seat in Little Rock, but they still face the specter of even more diminished clout in a state they dominated less than a decade ago.


“We're still swimming upstream here as Democrats. But when it comes down to it you've never seen Democrats in Arkansas work this hard or have a more organized, substantial get out the vote operation,” one Arkansas Democrat told The Hill. “Everyone realizes this is our last stand here. If Tom Cotton and Asa Hutchinson win it completes the Republican turnover here in Arkansas and it will be difficult for Democrats to come back.”

Democrats hoped they could return the state to its former glory days under then-Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGeorge Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump Is Donald Trump one of the smartest presidents in US history? Trump impeachment and trial: All parties should feel ashamed MORE, but the former president’s magic doesn’t look to be enough to overcome the drag President Obama has been on Democrats up and down the board. 

Democrats believe they still have a fighting chance in both races based on heavy investments in their field operation. But they privately admit things are looking tough in the state — and say if they can’t win with this ticket it may be even harder to compete in future years in a state that had held onto its Democratic lineage much longer than much of the rest of the South.

 Now though, Pryor has led in only two of more than 20 public polls going back to the beginning of the summer, and Cotton’s lead has reached double digits in some recent public polling. Strategists in both parties say privately that the contest is considerably closer than that, with Democrats believing the race is within the margin of error and Republicans believing Cotton has a larger lead. 

“They're really having to fight a guerrilla war,” said Roby Brock, the editor of Arkansas Talk Business and a longtime political observer in the state. “It's a tough environment for them and it's gotten a lot more difficult for them too in the last four to six weeks. President Obama's national comments have really been played up here, that his agenda is on the ballot and these guys are allies.”

Democrats have spent heavily in field operations to keep that from happening, and popular outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe (D) has been active in helping promote the ticket. Former President Clinton has also been back in his home state multiple times to help boost his party, with a final rally scheduled on Sunday.

“For us, this has always been an up or down two point race, and we have the capacity with volunteers and organized efforts on the ground to take it over the goal line,” said Arkansas Democratic Party coordinated campaign director Robert McLarty. “Everyone's writing us off, which gives us a lot of motivation to prove them wrong and show them three points is a movable target on the ground… We've been running into a headwind with the national numbers but we're going to win this thing on the ground.” 

McLarty pointed to big early voting numbers in Pulaski County, home of Little Rock and the largest Democratic base in the state, as well as high numbers in Washington County, a Republican-leaning area he says they’ve targeted to turn out a large number of Democrats.

Republicans rallied with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) on Friday. The stars aren’t as big, but they may not need as much of an enthusiasm boost.

Republicans argue that they’re doing just fine on the ground, and point out that while Democrats are doing well in Little Rock, the heavily African American Delta region isn’t turning out in substantial numbers.

“We feel good about where things are. We're not slowing down, Tom is continuing to barnstorm the state and meet with voters in all corners of Arkansas,” Cotton spokesman David Ray told The Hill. “The results we're seeing from early voting indicate Arkansans truly are ready for a change in direction in Washington and want a senator who represents their conservative values and beliefs and not one that's going to rubber-stamp Sen. Pryor's agenda of voting 93 percent of the time with the president.”

Arkansas Democrats are looking to a GOP-leaning House seat in the state’s center as a potential silver lining. Former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays (D) is running a strong race against banker French Hill (R) in the battle to replace Rep. Tim GriffinJohn (Tim) Timothy GriffinFlynn discloses lobbying that may have helped Turkey Tea Party class reassesses record Huckabee's daughter to run '16 campaign MORE (R-Ark.), who is running to be lieutenant governor. Democrats seem more confident than Republicans about the race’s result, especially since the main focus of Democratic ground efforts has been in that district.

Nonpartisan observers say that Democrats have built an impressive field operation in Arkansas, and tip their caps to strong races run by both Pryor and Ross. But they’re doubtful those will be enough. 

“If Democrats execute this perfectly and things break in their favor that's a heck of a story to write. I think their field operation shrinks the margins, but doesn't get them over the goal line,” said Brock.