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One of the key races that both parties are focusing on in hotly contested Arkansas this year is in the 4th District (Hot Springs, etc.) where state House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman (R) is facing James Lee Witt (D), the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), in a competitive contest for the congressional seat being vacated by freshman Tom Cotton (R), who is running for the US Senate.

In addition to the millions of dollars of outside money flowing into both Democratic and Republican campaigns in Arkansas this year, big wheels from both parties have been flying into the Razorback State to help their nominees in competitive contests for Congress as well as governor, US Senator and congress. For the Republicans, Mitt Romney, National GOP chairman Reince Priebus, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have hit the hustings on behalf of Westerman. Romney is an asset here; he carried Arkansas with 61% in 2012.

Westerman, 46, won the Republican nomination in a hotly contested primary by 54% to 46%. He has a degree in Biological and Agricultural Engineering from the University of Arkansas, where he played football. He also has a Master’s Degree in Forestry from Yale University. He is a former school board member and board president.

In 2012, Westerman was elected state House Majority Leader when Republicans won control of the lower chamber for the first time since Reconstruction, some 138 years ago. In the legislature, he has been strongly pro-life and against gun control. And in his campaign, he has criticized EPA for seeming “out-of-control,” adding, “You’ve got all of these federal agencies and a federal government that just keeps getting larger and larger.”

Westerman has not been a great fundraiser. At midyear, Democrat Witt had raised $834,000 with $396,000 on hand, while the GOP’s Westerman had raised $489,000, with $179,000 on hand. However, Westerman was outspent in the primary and still won, mainly because he brought out a large vote in Garland County (Hot Springs), his home base and the largest Republican county in the district. He also has a strong grassroots effort built up from being active in local business, government and politics.

Westerman might benefit from what appears to be a Republican tide developing in Arkansas this year. One knowledgeable source, albeit a GOPer, says Republicans are in a good position to win all seven of the elected state offices, including the governorship. They now hold only two of them. They also stand to gain seats in both the state House and Senate.

One manifestation of this GOP trend is a preponderance of TV spots for Republicans, mainly by independent expenditure groups. “There’s been a heavy air barrage” by the GOP, says one observer. Democrat Witt has a substantial money advantage, but this may be offset, at least in part, by the major money spent by and for the GOP in its important races for governor and the US Senate. Those statewide campaigns could help drive more Republican than Democratic voters to the polls in the 4th District as well.

Moreover, in the last redistricting, the 4th District was made a little more Republican by bringing in territory form the 3rd, a long-time GOP stronghold. However, Cotton has only served one term, not long enough to establish a strong network of supporters in the district that could benefit Westerman.

The Democrats have also brought in their big gun, an “outsider” with strong local ties, Bill Clinton, the state’s former governor and a former president. Clinton has already headlined a fundraiser for Witt. Despite the state’s Republican turn, Clinton remains influential here.

Moreover, Witt, 70, has considerable star power in his own right, stemming from his stint as President Clinton’s director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a post he held with considerable distinction, unlike some of his successors. Before that, Witt was a local officeholder then a state official before Gov. Clinton named him head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. This history also gives him significant contacts throughout the district, as well as the state.

So far, Witt appears to be aiming his campaign at the Democrats’ traditional base, issuing statements on the 79thanniversary of President Roosevelt’s signing Social Security Act into law in 1935 and another on the 49th anniversary of President Johnson’s signing the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965. He is also benefitting from endorsements from 26 of the 33 sheriffs in the district as well as from state organizations of veterans and firefighters

A poll of likely voters taken in late July by Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College showed Westerman leading with 48% to 34% for Witt and 3% for Libertarian Ken Hamilton, with 15% undecided. The survey showed Westerman leading among independent voters by 57% to 23%. It also showed that Witt had substantial weakness among African Americans, with about 20% preferring Westerman and another 25% undecided. Often Democratic candidates run poorly among black voters early in the campaign, before advertising and discussion of the issues bring most African Americans back into the Democratic fold. However, this early lack of enthusiasm may result in a lower turn-out rate for African Americans, which will hurt Witt and other Democratic candidates.

Leans Republican. Stay tuned.


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