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Special Elections Report: Arkansas

By Jonathan D. Salant CQ Staff Writer

With native son President Clinton running for re-election atop their ticket, these should be good days for the Arkansas Democratic Party. But such is far from the case. In fact, in the congressional races, the Democrats are without even one incumbent to carry their banner this year - a situation the party has not faced since 1874.

The Democrats also have to deal with an energized Republican opposition aiming to take over the Senate seat left open by the retirement of three-term Democrat David Pryor and two open House seats held by retiring Democrats Ray Thornton and Blanche Lambert Lincoln.

The Democrats may not even know until the June 11 runoff which of its candidates will be their nominees this fall in the three open-seat races, while the GOP is already set on its Senate candidate and one of its open-seat House contenders.

To make matters tougher, the Democrats lost their best hope of defeating two-term Republican Rep. Jay Dickey in the 4th District when Methodist minister Steve Copley decided at the last minute not to run. That left the field to a political neophyte, writer Vincent Tolliver. Copley already had started raising money but apparently felt he would not have enough to wage a credible campaign.

Arkansas' other two-term House Republican, Tim Hutchinson, is expected to have little trouble winning another term.

SENATE

Before he became lieutenant governor, Republican Mike Huckabee ran for the Senate on a ballot that included longtime Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1992.

Huckabee, a Baptist minister then making his first run for statewide office, was the Republican nominee against veteran Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers, and lost by 60 percent to 40 percent.

But Huckabee's political fortunes have improved dramatically since then. With Clinton's election as president, Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker moved up to the state's top job. Huckabee then established himself by winning a 1993 special election to succeed Tucker as lieutenant governor, and was re-elected in 1994.

This year, even with Clinton running again and expected to carry his home state, Huckabee rates almost an even chance of winning to succeed Pryor in the Senate. "Not many Yellow Dog Democrats left here," observed Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

If Huckabee wins, he will be the first Republican senator from Arkansas since Stephen W. Dorsey, who served from 1873 to 1879.

The Democratic primary front-runner also is a statewide elected official, Attorney General Winston Bryant. Bryant had served as lieutenant governor under Clinton in the 1980s, but decided in 1990 to instead run for attorney general.

Bryant hopes to break the 50 percent barrier in the primary and avoid a runoff, but four other Democratic candidates in the race make that goal difficult. The other contenders are state Sens. Kevin A. Smith and Lu Hardin and lawyers Bill Bristow and Sandy McMath, son of former Democratic Gov. Sidney S. McMath (1949-53).

However, these candidates are finding it difficult to find issues with which to weaken Bryant's standing. "Bryant has a good record as attorney general," English said. "It's going to be hard to attack him."

With Bryant near-certain to come in first in the primary, the others are battling for second and a place in the runoff they hope will be needed.

Political differences between the candidates are marginal. Hardin is bit more conservative than the others, while McMath comes from a political household that is progressive by Arkansas standards. The candidates have mainly been engaging in retail politics, meeting voters at local events and chowing down at party functions.

HOUSE

1 Northeast - Jonesboro; West Memphis

Blanche Lambert Lincoln had worked hard since winning this House seat in 1992 to position herself as a moderately conservative voice in the Democratic ranks and an advocate of compromise on the federal budget and other hotly debated issues. So her decision not to seek re-election, after finding out that she is expecting twins, was a surprise that raised the likelihood of a competitive House race this fall.

The Republicans are re-running Lincoln's tough 1994 challenger, former Jonesboro City Attorney Warren Dupwe, who has no opponent in this year's primary. Dupwe rode the GOP tide last time to 47 percent of the vote, the highest percentage by a Republican candidate in the district in more than a century.

In the two years since, Dupwe has traveled the state political circuit, visiting party organizations and community groups.

Three Democrats are vying for the chance to keep the district in their party's corner. Marion Berry, the White House liaison to the Agriculture Department, is considered the primary front-runner against Kirby Smith, an electrical workers' union official, and Tom Donaldson, a deputy prosecutor in Crittenden County.

This is a district that gave Clinton a 27-percentage point margin of victory over George Bush in 1992. But an influx of northern retirees to the Ozark Mountain counties in the district's northwest section is reducing the Democrats' dominance.

2 Central - Little Rock

Thornton is ending a two-stage House career. He first served from 1973 to 1979, left politics after losing a 1978 Senate primary, then made a comeback by winning the 2nd District seat in 1990 and twice since.

This district has enough of a conservative constituency that it is not impossible for a Republican to win. Although Clinton easily carried the 2nd in 1992, George Bush won it by a wide margin four years earlier.

Still, Thornton took 57 percent of the vote even in the tough 1994 campaign year.

Democrats would appear to have the edge to hold this seat, pending the outcome of both parties' wide-open primaries.

County prosecutor Mark Stodola already has raised more than $100,000 in his quest for the Democratic nomination.

He is opposed by John Edwards, a former Senate aide to Pryor, and state Sen. Victor F. Snyder. All three have strong bases of support in the district.

The 1994 Republican nominee, former radio talk show host Bill Powell, hopes the 43 percent he polled against Thornton is enough to earn him a second chance. But the lure of the open seat has brought five other Republicans to the race as well, led by lawyer-businessman Bud Cummins. The others are former state Republican Chairman Ken Coon; Jim Klote, a consultant to nonprofit organizations; former U.S. Marshal Don Melton; and military veteran Ronnie Stephenson.

State GOP Executive Director Richard Bearden said the Republican race is turning on which candidate is able to cast himself as the biggest admirer of former President Ronald Reagan, and which would have the best shot at winning in the fall. "There's just not a lot of difference," he said.

Copyright 1996, Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.



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