LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Democratic candidates for statewide and congressional office in Arkansas called for increasing the state's minimum wage and keeping its compromise Medicaid expansion alive on Saturday, describing themselves as champions of working families as they addressed the party's annual convention.
Hoping to prevent a Republican takeover of the state's top offices, the party's nominees derided GOP rivals as out of touch with the state on several issues affecting the middle class in the state.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, who is locked in a closely watched and expensive fight for a third term against Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, accused his rival of being too closely allied with outside groups that have been spending heavily in the race. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take a majority in the Senate, and the GOP views the Arkansas race as crucial to that fight.
"One thing they understand about Mark Pryor is I don't listen to them. I listen to you. They have their man in this race and he's going to do their bidding for them, and they know that if he gets in," Pryor told a packed auditorium at Philander Smith College. "We've got to do everything in our power to keep that from happening."
Cotton's campaign called Pryor the only candidate beholden to anyone, accusing the Democratic incumbent of being a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama.
"On Obamacare, immigration, and out-of-control spending, President Obama has no bigger ally in Arkansas than Senator Pryor," Cotton spokesman David Ray said in an email.
Pryor and several other candidates stressed their support for a measure vying for a spot on the ballot that would gradually raise Arkansas' minimum wage from $6.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour by 2017. The group pushing for the increase submitted additional signatures last week to try to qualify for the November ballot. The party's platform approved Saturday also endorsed the minimum wage hike.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross criticized Republican rival and fellow ex-congressman Asa Hutchinson for not supporting the minimum wage ballot measure and accused him of being evasive on whether he'd keep the state's compromise Medicaid expansion alive.
"I think Congressman Hutchinson has spent too much time in boardrooms and courtrooms and not enough time in living rooms and break rooms," Ross said. "You want a governor who's going to get up every day and go to work for you."
Hutchinson has said he wants to see the minimum wage raised to at least the federal rate, but that the hike should be handled by the Legislature and not a ballot measure. He has said he'll review the progress of the "private option" Medicaid expansion before deciding whether he'd back reauthorizing it another year. Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents.
Hutchinson accused Ross of focusing on attacking him rather than the issues.
"While Mike Ross was spending his time attacking me, I was spending my time meeting with teachers, working with them to help solve real problems facing our state, including improving education," Hutchinson, who had announced a "Teachers for Asa" coalition Saturday morning, said in a statement. "While Mike Ross tries to tear down, I am working to build Arkansas's future."
Republicans are trying to build on their gains from the past two elections, and now currently control both chambers of the state Legislature and all but one seat —Pryor's — in the state's congressional delegation. Popular Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is unable to run for re-election in November due to term limits.
The Democratic Party's nominees for two open congressional seats — former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays and former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt — both sounded similar anti-Washington messages in addressing delegates. Hays is running against Republican nominee French Hill, a Little Rock banking executive, for central Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District and Witt is running against Republican state Rep. Bruce Westerman for the 4th District in South Arkansas.
Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson, who is challenging Republican Congressman Rick Crawford in east Arkansas' 1st District, described the November election as a way to prove that Arkansas is still a Democratic state.
"There are some people who will tell you Arkansas is a red state or we're leaning red," McPherson said. "But I assure you that with your help in November we can show the whole world that Arkansas is completely blue."
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