By ANDREW DeMILLO, Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — When top Arkansas Democrats talk about their priorities in the 2012 election, they hardly mention the race for the White House or the fight for the state's four congressional seats.
They're focused instead on dozens of state House and Senate races that could decide whether the Legislature falls to Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction. It's a last stand for Democrats, who fear the GOP is poised to end a party tradition that began as this former Confederate state still was emerging from the aftermath of the Civil War.
"I think everybody's worried about" the Legislature changing parties, said state Rep. James McLean, a two-term Democrat who's seeking re-election. "It's a legitimate concern."
Arkansas is the only part of the old Confederacy where Democrats control the state Legislature and the governor's mansion, which is a point of pride for a party that hasn't been able to win the state's electoral votes since native son Bill Clinton was on the ticket.
"I think Arkansas Democrats have always been different from national Democrats," said U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a two-term Democrat who's already preparing for his 2014 re-election bid. "It's two different parties."
Republicans have had a dramatic reversal of fortune during the past four years, thanks in large part to demographic changes and an unpopular Democratic president. The state's growth now is primarily in Republican-friendly territory such as northwest Arkansas, while the Democratic stronghold of east Arkansas is losing population.
Back in 2008, party leaders were unable to find any candidates to run against Pryor or the state's three incumbent Democratic congressmen. Now the GOP holds three of the state's four U.S. House seats and a U.S. Senate seat. The state's only Democratic congressman, Mike Ross, is set to retire this year, and Republicans are well-positioned to win his south Arkansas district.
The prospect of clinching the Legislature, they say, shows that the days of larger-than-life Arkansas Democrats like Clinton and former Gov. Dale Bumpers are long gone.
"I think this state will be known as a die-hard Republican conservative state like many of our Southern neighbors, and the page will be turned," said freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin.
Political observers and insiders say a GOP takeover of one or both chambers could affect the state's political path for years, even decades.
"It could set the stage for more changes to come," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College and a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. "It's not just about one battle. It would have consequences in elections for a period of time."
Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who has been immune from the GOP surge, said a takeover of the Legislature would not necessarily be a fatal blow for his party.
"All of this is cyclical," Beebe said. "There is a huge anti-Obama bias, and it's affecting the races. That's just part of the cycle."
About the only thing Republicans and Democrats in Arkansas agree on is how much Obama has changed state politics. Four years ago, the president lost the state's six electoral votes by 20 percentage points, and he hasn't visited since stumping for Beebe in 2006.
Republicans are eager to make Obama a figure in state races, which would normally take little notice of national politics. They mention the president in speeches, mailers and campaign ads. And they regularly email and tweet images of Obama bumping fists with Beebe in an attempt to connect the two Democrats.
Democrats in Arkansas, many of whom overwhelmingly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton's unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination four years ago, grumble that they're saddled with the unpopularity of a president who wasn't their first pick.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he believes the party would "absolutely" be in a stronger position had Clinton been the nominee four years ago.
He still believes it's possible for Arkansas Democrats to distinguish themselves from the national party. But the obstacles include a president who "has made no attempt to connect to the people of Arkansas" and outside groups that now spend more money on what had been traditionally local races.
"That leads to a very difficult environment for a state Senate candidate who has the perfect resume and experience and ideology and platform to be an excellent legislator but is swimming against the tide of something over which he or she would have no control," McDaniel said.
Democrats have also tried to distance themselves from a national party agenda they say doesn't reflect their own values on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. But they say anger from voters isn't aimed solely at their party.
"I think folks are just mad," said Sen. Larry Teague, who will serve as president of the Senate next year if Democrats keep a majority there. "I don't know that they are any madder at Democrats than they are Republicans."
One of the few Democrats Arkansas voters aren't mad at is Beebe, who has enjoyed an approval rating that's never fallen below 70 percent in most polls since taking office in 2007. That's why Democrats are increasingly pointing to his record on cutting taxes and avoiding the financial woes of other states as their main case for keeping the Legislature.
Beebe insists Democrats can win if they focus on the state's needs, rather than getting tied up in national issues.
"It's very important we don't let the other side define who we are and what we're about," Beebe told Democrats at their state convention last month. "We don't just stick our head in the sand and pretend the sky is falling and there's not an opportunity to fix this thing."
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo
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