Arkansas's Republican Party is poised to make a lot of history in 2012. Odds are good that the party will be able to take control of at least one of the chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. Just as historic, the GOP has been on track to control the state's entire U.S. House delegation after November. The surprisingly strong performance of Jonesboro prosecutor Scott Ellington in the First Congressional District's primary, however, suggests that the Democrats' dreams of unseating first-term incumbent Rick Crawford and maintaining a place in the House delegation aren't illusory.
Until a few weeks before the primary election, most Democrats believed that holding the newly designed Fourth Congressional District would provide their best chance of congressional success, particularly if 2010 GOP nominee Beth Anne Rankin snuck through a low-turnout primary. But, Rankin's candidacy was blown away by Tom Cotton's heavily financed campaign that effectively introduced him in a saturation television buy. No matter the winner of that district's Democratic runoff, Cotton is in strong shape to easily win the general election and — through his geographical base outside of northwest Arkansas, his educational and military background and his likeable personality — to immediately become a promising statewide candidate. After Cotton's performance last week, national Democrats are only going through the motions in voicing their commitment to investing in the Fourth in coming months.
That money will be best spent in the First District. Ellington filed at the last minute in early March and it appeared for most of the primary that the late start had allowed Rep. Clark Hall to gain such an advantage in endorsements and fundraising that Ellington could not overcome it. Despite being outspent, Ellington came within a whisker of winning the primary without a runoff by running up big margins in the vote-rich territory north of Interstate 40. In primary elections in the South, a "40 + 5" rule generally holds; that is, if a candidate wins 40 percent of the first primary vote and has a 5 percentage point lead over the other runoff candidate then, barring an odd set of facts, he or she will win the runoff.
Ellington is likely to win easily on June 12 and could be a viable general election candidate if provided resources he has lacked to date. Just as in the primary, the bulk of general election votes will be in Craighead County and those surrounding it that Ellington has represented as prosecuting attorney. Thus, Ellington is in a position to neutralize Crawford's geographical advantage in 2010 in that region. Moreover, the area below I-40 includes a large swath of counties that were not part of the district in 2010 and thus are as new to Crawford as to a Democratic challenger. Because of its large African-American population, this area is also the most loyally Democratic region of the state outside of Pulaski County, providing Ellington an additional advantage.
Ellington's hope for November success rests on overcoming several challenges:
Can his campaign move aggressively to define the still ill-defined Crawford (42 percent of the districts' voters had no opinion of Crawford in a September 2011 Talk Business-Hendrix College poll) through highlighting his voting record that includes cuts to federal programs popular in the district, flip-flops on major issues such as income taxes on millionaires, and a personal financial history of which Democrats failed to take full advantage in 2010?
Can Ellington elegantly distance himself from President Obama among white rural voters in the district without being perceived as dissing the president by the district's African-American voters and the smaller number of white progressives (who gravitated to third-place finisher Gary Latanich in last week's voting)?
Can Ellington build legitimate relationships with African Americans in the district not grounded in the patronizing tactic of paying "walking around" money to community leaders, a tradition happily showing a weakening impact with each election cycle?
Most importantly, will national Democrats remain engaged for the long haul in the district touching four major media markets or will the party's resources be diverted to other promising pick-up opportunities or suddenly vulnerable incumbents?
Clearly, a number of forces must come together for the Democrats to hold on to a piece of the House delegation. However, those hopes seem decidedly better than just a week ago.