LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — The parade of national Republican Party figures through Arkansas touting the GOP's candidates underscores just how much the party is counting on a state that had once been considered a Democratic stronghold in the South. It also offers the GOP a chance to make another, not-subtle dig at what they say is Democrats' biggest weakness — the unpopularity of their national leaders in the state.
The separate visits by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week were aimed at linking Democrats' top candidates to President Barack Obama. It's a familiar theme in the state, especially in the high-profile and expensive Senate fight between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the U.S. Senate, and they view Arkansas as crucial to that fight.
"The entire nation cares about this race," Romney said after headlining a pair of fundraisers with Cotton in North Little Rock last week. "We care about this race because the question is, 'are we going to take the course that's been set by Barack Obama and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid, or are we going to instead take a course that leads to better jobs and higher incomes and a secure border and more energy and lower prices?'"
Romney didn't mention Pryor during his news conference with Cotton, nor did he mention Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross a day earlier as he spoke to reporters about Republican rival Asa Hutchinson's bid. He didn't have to. The visit by Romney, who won more than 60 percent of Arkansas' vote in his unsuccessful White House bid two years ago, was more about the president who defeated him than anything else.
"How different America would be today, how different Arkansas would be today if we had...President Mitt Romney," State GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said.
Despite the hopeful nature of that comment, Republicans have been almost gleeful over the past two years about tying Obama to Democratic hopefuls up and down the ballot. McCarthy used his campaign stop at Little Rock on behalf of congressional hopeful French Hill to accuse Democratic rival Pat Hays of blocking the Keystone XL pipeline. Priebus told Republicans that defeating Pryor is the best way to fire Reid.
Though they're unlikely to enlist Reid or House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to the state for a campaign stop, Democrats haven't been lacking in big-name surrogates. Namely, they've been relying on the help of former President Bill Clinton, who kicked off Pryor's re-election bid last year and has been visiting his home state on a regular basis to campaign for other Democrats on the ballot. He's expected to make more campaign appearances for Democrats in the state before the election.
They've also tried to be targeted in their use of high-profile figures. A visit by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey earlier this year gave Pryor a new opening to criticize Cotton's vote against disaster aid for the Northeast following Superstorm Sandy. Pryor's also been enjoying the help of his father David, a former senator and governor, who has been campaigning around the state on behalf of his son's bid.
Republican Party officials say they expect even more national figures in the state before Nov. 4, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie slated to visit this week to campaign with Hutchinson.
Democrats have dismissed the visits as a sign the Republicans are more interested in Washington than Arkansas.
"I think they're trying to nationalize the election again, and this is the way to do it," state Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo