LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Democrats have suffered politically in recent years after Republicans tied the party to President Barack Obama in federal, state and even local legislative races. But now Democrats hope standing with the president during the 16-day federal government shutdown could reverse their fortunes.
From a two-term senator accusing his Republican rival of costing the country billions for supporting the budget standoff to a congressional hopeful citing it as his primary reason for running, the shutdown is offering hope to Arkansas Democrats that they may be able to stop a GOP takeover of the state's top offices.
"Sixteen days in October was a travesty," former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays told supporters as he launched his bid for a U.S. House seat in central Arkansas. "I wasn't thinking about running for Congress in the latter part of September, because I didn't think they would do what they did. "
Now Hays is running for one of two open U.S. House seats that Democrats have grown more hopeful about winning, one of which opened days after the vote last week to end the shutdown. Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin announced Monday he wouldn't seek re-election next year so he could focus on his family, and Hays was the first candidate to announce he'd run for the seat.
With national polls showing Republicans taking a hit politically from the shutdown, Hays and other Democrats here see the issue as a chance to rebound from elections that have been defined by a Democratic president who remains deeply unpopular in the state.
Republicans last year swept all four of Arkansas' U.S. House seats and won both chambers of the state Legislature after tying candidates to the president and his health care law. It was the same strategy that helped the GOP win three of the state's seven constitutional offices two years earlier and beat two-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
But for Sen. Mark Pryor, targeted by Republicans eager to unseat the state's only Democrat in Washington, the shutdown could offer a chance to avoid the same fate in next year's election.
The GOP needs to gain six seats to return to power in the U.S. Senate and their top targets are the last of the Southern Democrats in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, as well as Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska and seats in West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota.
But Republicans' legitimate shot at reclaiming control of the Senate took a hit with the shutdown, and the sullied GOP image has become problematic for GOP House members across the country who are seeking Senate seats — like U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, who is challenging Pryor.
Even before lawmakers voted to re-open the government and raise the nation's borrowing limit, Pryor's campaign was eager to tie Cotton to the budget standoff that led to the shutdown. Pryor used the shutdown events to paint Cotton as too extreme, and his campaign plans to continue reminding voters of Cotton's support for tying any spending bills to efforts to defund the health care law, a move that led to the government shutdown.
"Tom Cotton cost us billions...Cotton and a small group of reckless congressmen took our country to the brink of default," a television ad Pryor is airing in Arkansas says.
At the same time, Pryor is casting himself as willing to work with the GOP to solve the nation's woes, with his campaign highlighting his work with a bipartisan group of senators that met to negotiate an end to the shutdown.
"He's a problem solver. Tom Cotton was part of the problem," Pryor campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.
Getting Arkansas voters to agree likely will be difficult. Counter to national sentiment, a University of Arkansas poll released this week showed more likely voters in the state blaming Democrats than Republicans for the shutdown. The same poll, taken during the final days of the shutdown, also showed approval numbers for Pryor and Republican Sen. John Boozman both falling to 34 percent among likely voters.
"You can see our federal figures taking it on the chin as a consequence," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas and the director of the school's Arkansas Poll.
Cotton and other Republicans, however, are trying to shift the shutdown talk back to the health care law. Cotton, who has targeted Pryor over his vote for the overhaul in 2010, has criticized Pryor and the Democratic Senate for not supporting House-backed proposals to re-open government in exchange for concessions on the health law — including delaying its implementation.
"My only regret about those votes before the shutdown is the Senate Democrats so stubbornly refused to accept even modest changes to Obamacare," Cotton said.
Republicans are also focusing on the computer problems that frustrated many trying to sign up for coverage under the health law. The glitches have prompted Pryor and other Democrats to call for extending the signup period for insurance under the law.
Democrats show no signs of letting up with the focus on the shutdown's impact, with a publicity blitz that included sending Cotton a $24 billion "invoice," a Standard & Poor's estimate of what the shutdown cost the economy. They also believe it could lead to more gains, with former Federal Emergency Management Director James Lee Witt weighing a bid for Cotton's south Arkansas House seat.
"People who were watching it got really concerned and that's getting out there to regular working class folks...I don't think it's going away," state Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said.
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