LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The very bad year for Arkansas Democrats ended on an equally gloomy note.
Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Dustin McDaniel's admission of an extramarital relationship with a Hot Springs attorney marked another low point in 2012 for a party that saw its legislative majority and sole congressional seat wiped out in an election by Republicans. The party's woes came in a year when Republicans made gains that many in the GOP had waited generations to witness.
"I think it's an exciting new day for Arkansas after 138 years of primarily one-party rule," Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, who won re-election to his central Arkansas district, said on election night.
After all the votes were counted, Republicans held 51 of the 100 seats in the House and 21 of the 35 seats in the Senate. It marked the first time that Republicans controlled the House and Senate since Reconstruction and ended Arkansas' place as the only former Confederate state where Democrats held the Legislature and the governor's office.
The legislative victories came after a campaign where Republicans doubled down on a strategy that helped them two years ago.
Republicans candidates throughout the state tried to tie their Democratic rivals to President Barack Obama, who remains deeply unpopular in Arkansas, and his federal health care overhaul. In mailings and advertisements, Obama's image and name were invoked more than any other figure in the state.
"There is a huge anti-Obama bias, and it's affecting the races," Beebe, a Democrat who's enjoyed widespread popularity despite the GOP's gains, warned in the weeks heading into the election. "That's just part of the cycle."
The GOP was also aided by the help of outside conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity that spent big on the fight for the Legislature. AFP spent more than $900,000 in the state over the past two years and sent 1.1 million mailers in 32 House and Senate districts. Democrats were aided to a lesser extent Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which sent mailers and aired ads.
The GOP won both chambers despite the backlash against the racially charged writings of three of its candidates.
Republican Rep. Jon Hubbard, who called slavery a "blessing in disguise" in a 2009 book, lost to Democratic challenger Harold Copenhaver, and Democratic Rep. James McLean beat Republican Charlie Fuqua, a candidate and former House member from Batesville who advocated the deportation of all Muslims in a 2011 self-published book. Rep. Loy Mauch, who called Abraham Lincoln a "war criminal" in one of a series of letters to a newspaper, lost to Democrat David Kizzia. Republican leaders distanced themselves from the remarks.
Democrats suffered from a scandal from one of their own legislative candidates as well. Democratic Rep. Hudson Hallum resigned his east Arkansas seat in September after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit election fraud. Hallum, along with his father and two campaign workers, admitted in court to participating in a conspiracy to bribe voters in an attempt to influence them in the 2011 special election that sent him to the Legislature.
"I didn't initially really feel like what I was doing was wrong because I always heard that that's what you do over here," Hallum said the day after he pleaded guilty
Hallum's resignation, and a judge's order that no votes could be counted for him, paved the way for his predecessor, Fred Smith, to return to the seat he had abandoned after a felony theft by property delivered by mistake conviction. He filed paperwork to run as a Democrat again in March, but the party sued to keep him off the ballot because of the felony charge. A judge dismissed the theft case, and Smith ran as the Green Party's nominee for the seat.
Democrats' stumbles also helped Republicans sweep all four of the state's congressional seats. Ken Aden, the party's nominee for the 3rd District in northwest Arkansas, dropped his bid against Republican Rep. Steve Womack after questions were raised about his claims on his military record. In central Arkansas, Democrat Herb Rule's bid to unseat Griffin in the 2nd district was hampered by his arrest by Fayetteville police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Rule has denied he was drunk and questioned the way police handled the traffic stop.
Democrat Scott Ellington fell short in his effort to unseat Republican Rep. Rick Crawford in east Arkansas' 1st District, despite a backlash Crawford saw from some conservatives over his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. Democratic state Sen. Gene Jeffress' cash-strapped bid for the 3rd District seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Mike Ross was no match for Republican Tom Cotton's well-funded campaign. Cotton, an Army veteran and former management consultant, won with the backing of major conservative groups like the Club for Growth.
Long before any votes were cast in the 2012 election, politicians on both sides were positioning themselves for a bigger fight in 2014. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in April announced he would seek a third term, as he dismissed speculation that he would retire from the seat he's held since 2003. The following month, Ross stunned many when he passed on a widely expected bid for governor. The retiring congressman said he would instead take a job with the Southwest Power Pool, and essentially ruled out running for office again.
"You never say never, but I think 2014 was my year, and I think we had a decent shot at winning," Ross said. "But at the end of the day it wasn't a political decision. It was just a very personal decision, and I made a decision based on what I thought was best for me and my family."
McDaniel announced in June that he would run for governor and raised more than $1 million for his bid, but the year ended with his political future in doubt after he admitted to an "inappropriate" relationship with a Hot Springs attorney. The revelation threatened a bid for the Democratic nomination that his campaign days before had suggested was a lock. He now faces the possibility of a heated primary fight against former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter, who are both considering running.
Several Republicans also expressed interest in the race, with former Congressman Asa Hutchinson expected to announce in January whether he'll run.
Republicans, meanwhile, were less certain about who would challenge Pryor after Griffin said he wouldn't run for Senate or governor. Griffin closed the door on a 2014 bid for statewide office after securing a spot on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo