LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A prosecutor who negotiated the deal that freed three men convicted in the 1993 killing of three Cub Scouts narrowly won Tuesday's Democratic primary runoff for a congressional seat in Arkansas, as did a state senator who campaigned with no paid staff and little money in the bank.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington defeated state Rep. Clark Hall in the 1st District race, as they vied for the nomination in an east Arkansas district Democrats believe they can reclaim in November's election against Republican incumbent Rick Crawford.
Complete but unofficial returns showed Ellington won by a 259-vote margin, or 1.3 percent of the 19,847 votes cast. In south Arkansas' 4th Congressional District, state Sen. Gene Jeffress beat attorney Q. Byrum Hurst by a better than 3-2 margin.
Hall, a farmer and former mayor, raised more money than Ellington and was able to buy TV advertising ahead of the May primary. He has been backed by prominent state Democrats including former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, who held the seat from 1997 to 2011. Crawford won the seat two years ago after Berry retired.
But Ellington entered Tuesday's election as the front-runner after nearly topping 50 percent of the vote in the primary, which would have given him the nomination outright. Ellington said he now planned to focus on the general election fight for the seat.
"We're going to have to get to work and keep doing what we did and reach the voters and let them know who we are and what we stand for," Ellington said. "I'm just a regular guy who represents regular folks."
Ellington overcame criticism in the final days of the campaign from Hall over the agreement last year that freed the men known as the West Memphis Three, convicted of killing three Cub Scouts in 1993. The case generated international headlines and won the attention of Hollywood celebrities including Johnny Depp.
After nearly two decades in prison, the men were allowed to plead guilty to murder in exchange for time served, relying on a legal provision under which they acknowledged prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them while still proclaiming their innocence.
Ellington, who agreed to the deal less than halfway through his first term, has defended the agreement and said it shows he knows how to compromise in difficult situations. Critics of the deal said it allowed three murderers to walk free, while supporters of the West Memphis Three have been publicly calling on the prosecutor to re-open the investigation so the men can be exonerated.
Joseph Scalzo, a retired postal worker who cast a ballot for Ellington in West Memphis Tuesday, said that agreement was partly why he backed the prosecutor.
"I believe they are innocent," Scalzo said. "Ellington made the right choice."
Ellington said he didn't believe it factored into Tuesday's election and likely wouldn't be an issue in the fall either.
"I still think for the most part, the decision that was made has been accepted by folks and especially the people in our part of the state that will be voting," Ellington said.
Besides calling Ellington out for the West Memphis Three deal, Hall criticized the prosecutor for liens over unpaid taxes and a credit card debt lawsuit Ellington's wife faced, saying they make him a weak nominee for the seat. Ellington has accused Hall of unfairly dragging his wife into the campaign.
Hall congratulated Ellington and offered to help him in the general election against Crawford.
"There were those who said our race grew acrimonious in its final weeks," Hall said in a statement released by his campaign "But if we didn't both believe the people of the 1st District were worth fighting for, neither of us would have any business running."
In the 4th District, Hurst conceded to Jeffress after he said there weren't enough votes in his home county of Garland to close the gap with the state lawmaker. During the three-week runoff campaign, Hurst and Jeffress clashed more on their campaign styles than anything else. Jeffress won the most votes in last month's primary, despite having no campaign staff or TV ads.
Jeffress acknowledged he'd need more resources to run against Republican nominee Tom Cotton, who won the GOP nomination outright after raising more than $1 million and with the support of national Republican groups like the Club for Growth.
"We're going to have the funds to remain competitive," Jeffress said. "We're looking forward to the exchange. It's going to be tough, but I guarantee you we've got a plan."
Hurst had outpaced Jeffress in fundraising and had been targeted on a near-daily basis by national Republicans who viewed him as the most likely nominee. Hurst pledged to help Jeffress win the general election but said he's still concerned about whether his rival's cash-strapped organization will be enough against Cotton.
"I'm going to try and talk to Gene and convince him he needs to utilize a more modern technique," Hurst said. "But he beat me, so I feel like I've got to concede to his wisdom in this regard."
Cotton released a statement late Tuesday congratulating Jeffress and said he looked forward to a "vigorous and civil campaign."
Jeffress has said his success in last month's primary shows he can win with a lean organization against better-funded rivals. Republicans are confident they can win the seat after Democratic Congressman Mike Ross' decision to not seek a seventh term. The district was redrawn last year and now includes some traditionally Republican counties in northwest Arkansas.
Gail Cogbill, a 64-year-old retired math teacher, cast a ballot for Jeffress in Texarkana like she did in May. But she said she's leaning toward voting for Cotton in the fall.
"I just feel like he's a young, honest politician that I can associate with," she said.
Associated Press writers Adrian Sainz, Chuck Bartels and Jeannie Nuss contributed to this report.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo