|Updated: 6/04/2012 8:34 am
||Published: 6/04/2012 8:30 am
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Democrats running for congressional seats in southern and eastern Arkansas are going negative and touting their electability as early voting is set to begin in the primary runoffs for the two seats.
Voters can cast their ballots early starting Tuesday for the runoffs in the 1st and 4th congressional districts. The matchups for the two seats headline the ballot for the June 12 runoff, an election that's expected to draw far fewer voters than last month's primary.
Secretary of State Mark Martin's office hasn't predicted how many voters in the two districts will cast a ballot in the runoff election. About 22 percent of Arkansas' 1.5 million registered voters cast a ballot in last month's primary, lower than the 30 percent initially predicted by Martin.
Voters will also pick the nominees in five legislative primaries, but most of the focus is on the congressional matchups that cover more than half of the state's territory.
The two seats present very different landscapes for Democrats, who have been trying to prevent a sweep by Republicans in Arkansas after recent GOP gains. Republicans hold three of the four U.S. House seats and may be poised to win control of the state Legislature this fall.
After a relatively cordial primary campaign where the candidates focused more on their potential November rivals, the Democrats in these two districts have started taking on each other more directly and touting themselves as the party's best hope for the fall.
In east Arkansas, Prosecutor Scott Ellington and state Rep. Clark Hall are vying for a chance to challenge freshman Republican Congressman Rick Crawford. Democrats believe the race is their best opportunity to pick up a seat they lost in the 2010 election.
Despite trailing Hall in fundraising and high-profile backers, Ellington finished first in the May 22 primary and just short of the majority needed to win the nomination outright.
Hoping to undermine that momentum, Hall seized on news last week that Ellington's wife is being sued by creditors seeking more than $26,000 in credit card debts. Hall's campaign manager said that the lawsuit, and prior liens Ellington has had that have since been resolved, make the prosecutor an "incredibly weak" choice as the party's nominee.
Ellington, calling the criticism "cowardly" for focusing on his wife, said it showed that Hall is running scared.
"It's awful desperate on the part of the Hall campaign," Ellington said. "We caught them off guard by getting 49.5 percent of the vote in the primary and I think that all of a sudden they've gotten more desperate."
The exchange is the harshest in a campaign where both Ellington and Hall initially wanted to focus more on Crawford than their fellow Democrat's. A day before campaign manager Forest Boles criticized Ellington's finances, Hall shied from citing specific flaws with Ellington and instead touted himself as the "only candidate who can beat Rick Crawford in the fall."
"In the real world, I can win in November," Hall said.
Democrats have also been slowly engaging each other more directly in the 4th District. The sprawling 33-county district across parts of south and west Arkansas presents a more challenging environment for Democrats. State Sen. Gene Jeffress and Hot Springs attorney Q. Byrum Hurst are seeking the party's nomination for the seat, which includes more traditional Republican territory after redistricting.
The winner of the primary will face Tom Cotton, who won the GOP nomination outright in a three-person primary last month.
Just like Ellington in east Arkansas, Jeffress surprised many by finishing first in the May primary. The state lawmaker has no paid staff, no working website and didn't run any television ads in the primary campaign. Hurst surpassed him in fundraising and had been targeted on a near-daily basis by national Republicans expecting him to be the nominee. Hurst has tried to recover quickly from his disappointing finish, and three days after the primary loaned his campaign $30,000.
Jeffress said liens that Hurst has had filed against him and disciplinary action he's faced from a professional conduct committee for attorneys are problems that could hurt him if he were the party's nominee in the fall. Jeffress said he's not raising them as issues in the campaign, but said he's heard concerns from voters about both.
"I think that could be used by the other campaign guys to cause a lot of disruptions," Jeffress said.
Hurst in turn said criticism over Jeffress' use of expenses and per diem could be damaging to the party in a general election. Jeffress received more than $52,000 in expenses, mileage and per diem last year, the seventh-highest amount among state legislators, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"He has the luxury of being paid by the state and even a large expense account and those are things he can use to his advantage," Hurst said.
Political observers say the matchups come as the party's odds are changing even more. Coupled with Democratic Congressman Mike Ross' pending retirement and redistricting, Cotton's strong win in the GOP primary makes the 4th an even weaker prospect for Democrats, said Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College.
The new boundaries for the 1st District and the potential threat from Ellington, who could cut into Crawford's support in the Jonesboro area, may boost Democrats' chances in that district, he said.
"They've shifted in different directions," Barth said.
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