Arkansas' 4th Congressional District picked up all or part of 8 counties in the western part of the state under new redistricting boundaries and the analogy of frontier territory couldn't be more appropriate.
The 4th District now includes Franklin, Johnson, Madison, and Yell counties and parts of Crawford, Newton and Sebastian counties. Three counties — Chicot, Desha and Lincoln — all were moved into the First District along with a sliver of Jefferson County under the legislature-approved Congressional redistricting plan in 2011.
"The Fourth District will certainly be unpredictable this cycle," said Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College.
Political number-crunching indicates that the Republicans have picked up a healthy advantage with the new counties when counterbalanced with the more Democratic counties that were pulled out of the district. The district post is now held by U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who has said he will not seek re-election.
"Right now, you'd have to say advantage Republicans for the fall," said Barth. "I think no matter who the GOP nominee is the Republican National Congressional Campaign Committee is going to see a real possibility for a pick-up in that district and they're going to come in with money. The real question really becomes does the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) see the district as one they can save."
This year's Fourth Congressional District pits three Republicans for their party’s nomination and three Democrats for their side’s nominee.
Who will win each party's nomination? Who knows. Normal predictors aren't likely to be in play this cycle.
MEET THE REPUBLICANS
Republicans have their best shot in more than a decade to reclaim the seat that once was represented by U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Pine Bluff, before retiring Cong. Mike Ross (D) unseated him in 2000.
"Historically, the Republican primary in the Fourth District has not been a particularly visible affair, but that is where the action is this cycle," Barth said.
Beth Anne Rankin, the 2010 GOP challenger to Ross, is back for a second try and by all accounts, has stellar name identification based on internal polling on the race. The Magnolia native is a former Miss Arkansas and served for nearly a decade on the staff of then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, who enthusiastically supports her candidacy.
Rankin clearly has the conservative credentials to represent her party. Her other big strength is a campaign organization in a party primary not normally known for its turnout. In 2010, Rankin defeated Tea Party conservative Glenn Gallas by a 55-45 percent margin, but less than 18,000 voters cast ballots in that primary election.
Tom Cotton enters the Fourth District primary as the best-known, unknown candidate in Republican circles. Cotton flirted with a U.S. Senate run in 2010, but never pulled the trigger.
This year, he brings his national connections, Harvard Law School background and military experience to the forefront as an attractive bio candidate. Cotton also has a strong conservative pedigree, picking up early endorsements from the Club For Growth and the Conservative Victory Fund. One time candidate Marcus Richmond of Scott County dropped out of the race in February and threw his support to Cotton.
The challenge for Cotton is resonating with the small GOP primary base. He lives in new territory for the Congressional district, thanks to redrawn lines, and he hasn’t been in Arkansas for several years to benefit from any insider status. He works the coffee shops, town halls and Republican committee meeting circuit, but he’ll rely on an overwhelming fundraising advantage to lift him to full frontrunner status.
He banked well over $500,000 in the first two reporting quarters and he’s already taken to the airwaves to introduce himself to primary voters who might not meet him one-on-one.
"Money can tend to not matter as much the smaller the electorate is," Barth said. "Obviously, we've got a contrast this year with a candidate with money, Tom Cotton, and a candidate who is of the district and has connections built through working with Gov. Huckabee and having run last time, Beth Anne Rankin. It's really a classic contrast of money versus more personal connections."
The third candidate in the Republican primary is John Cowart. The police officer and Marine is running an outsider campaign, but he’ll likely struggle to resonate with GOP voters who don’t know him. He lacks Rankin’s connections to the party faithful and he can’t match Cotton’s contributions, which are allowing him to bombard the airwaves.
However as an alternative to Republican voters not satisfied with their choices, Cowart could prove to be a wild card and force a run-off, similar to the spoiler role Democrat D.C. Morrison played in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary between Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter.
MEET THE DEMOCRATS
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats received a surprise during filing period as longtime Hot Springs politico Q. Byrum Hurst, Jr. made an unexpected entry in the primary field after declarations from State Sen. Gene Jeffress, D-Louann, and the aforementioned D.C. Morrison.
Despite having three choices, Democrats don’t have a consensus candidate despite months of efforts by Ross and party leaders to recruit a strong successor to the six-term incumbent.
"It feels like a little bit of a crapshoot," said Barth, who expects a run-off in the Democratic primary.
Hurst is an attorney and small business owner whose connections extend back to his father’s political service as a State Senator from 1950-1972. The senior Hurst once challenged then-Gov. Dale Bumpers in the ’72 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
In 2012, it remains to be seen how quickly Hurst can put together a campaign team and strategy to cover the sprawling Fourth Congressional District. He’ll need a strong showing in his native Garland County to compete. But other Democratic strongholds include Jefferson County and southeast and southwest Arkansas, where legislative political primaries abound.
Hurst doesn’t begin with any advantage in terms of name identification. Of the three Democrats, Morrison may actually have the most.
When he challenged Lincoln and Halter two years ago, he had some of his best showings in the Fourth District, such as the 25% of the vote he received in tiny Grant County, where he owns property.
Morrison hasn’t really said why he’s running in the south Arkansas district that now extends through the River Valley. He lists his home address in Little Rock, but it isn’t a requirement to live in the Congressional District you wish to represent.
Morrison, who touts himself as a conservative Democrat, doubtfully ingratiated himself with Democratic primary voters after visibly showing support for Republicans in the 2010 general election. Still, he should be a factor and could pull double-digit support despite having little campaign money.
State Sen. Gene Jeffress could win the primary or potential run-off, which is a possibility with no real official frontrunner. He represents a sizeable Senate district in south central Arkansas, and his brother is well-known and influential in another large Senate district in southeast Arkansas.
These areas could see heavier Democratic primary turnout as there are contested races in those regions and that could benefit the Jeffress brand. Jeffress also has eschewed raising the money necessary to run a modern-day political campaign.
"It's the kind of race where you could imagine an upset that doesn't make a lot of sense based on the traditional predictors. I don't think any of the Democratic candidates are going to have much money," Barth said.