LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A state legislator’s decision to run for a U.S. House seat in central Arkansas is a sign that Democrats see a chance to reclaim what once had been a reliably blue district despite the state’s shift to the right in recent years. But the party still faces long odds in taking back the seat, even in an election year where President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is helping Democrats elsewhere.
State Rep. Clarke Tucker announced last week he’s running for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Congressional District, setting up a three-person contest in the May 22 primary. Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill is seeking a third term for the seat, which encompasses seven counties.
The district has traditionally been viewed as the least conservative of Arkansas’ four House seats, with Trump winning 52 percent of the vote in the presidential election two years ago. It still poses a challenge for Democrats who have been trying to recover from Republicans taking over Arkansas’ statewide and federal offices in recent years. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton only won Pulaski County in the district in her White House bid two years ago, with the surrounding counties going Republican.
Tucker, however, offers some name recognition from his family’s ties to Little Rock and his time in the Legislature. He also showed fundraising ability in his first bid for a state House seat, something that is important for Democrats trying to topple a Republican incumbent who has more than $1.3 million in the bank.
Like many other Democrats in the state, Tucker is counting on the district’s voters caring more about the candidate than the party. He points to former Gov. Mike Beebe’s re-election victory in 2010, when the Republican takeover of the state’s top offices began.
“I think people respond to someone who makes sure they prioritize the people of Arkansas and the state over allegiance to a political party,” Tucker said. “I think the people will respond to that and I think they’ll vote for a candidate like that, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican.”
Tucker’s entry also sets up a potentially heated primary with two lesser-known rivals hoping to draw on their backgrounds as grass-roots activists to win the nomination. One of them, Paul Spencer, has touted his work leading a group that has pushed for campaign finance and ethics reforms. The other, Gwen Combs, has pointed to her work organizing last year’s women’s march at the state Capitol that coincided with others nationwide.
Both indicated they’ll be going after Tucker from the left. Spencer touted his support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and a “Medicare for all” plan as he welcomed Tucker into the race.
“If Democrats want to win back House Districts like the Second, we must no longer be afraid of making bold, progressive demands on the issues that matter most to average Americans,” he said in a statement last week.
Combs, meanwhile, portrayed her new rival as no different from Hill, a former banking executive, in terms of background. Tucker is the son of a real estate developer.
“Voters are looking at the 2018 midterms as an opportunity to elect candidates who understand what it’s like to be an Arkansan who doesn’t come from money or privilege,” she said. Tucker responded that his background is working with both parties in the state Legislature.
No matter who wins the nomination, the main path for Democrats ultimately comes down to Pulaski County. Jay Barth, a Hendrix College political science professor who has been active with the party, said one factor that may help is a likely heated and expensive three-person mayoral race that’s shaping up in Little Rock in the fall. But the congressional race still remains tough given the conservative nature of the surrounding counties.
“The real path is a combination of exceptionally high turnout in Pulaski County and a candidate who does particularly well in that county,” Barth said. “You need the one-two punch of not just doing well, but also just a Democrat having monstrous turnout in that county.”
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo
An AP News Analysis