By JOHN LYON
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — The head of state Democratic Party says he recognizes that Democrats face a number of challenges this election year, but he doesn’t expect those challenges to translate into Republican gains in November.
“I don’t think we’re going to lose ground. I would be surprised if there was a drastic change,” Democratic Party of Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Todd Turner said in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau.
The executive director of the state Republican Party said Turner was living in a “fantasy land.”
Turner predicted that Democrats will maintain their dominance of Arkansas politics, continuing to hold at least five of the state’s six congressional seats, all statewide constitutional offices and strong majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature.
“I think we’re going to maintain the status quo,” said Turner, an Arkadelphia lawyer and former Clark County Democratic Central Committee chairman who was installed as the state party’s chairman in February 2009.
Between turmoil over the federal health care overhaul, the rise of the Tea Party movement and high unemployment rates, some are predicting a tough election cycle for Democrats. Turner said that will be less true in Arkansas than elsewhere.
“Our Democrats in this state are a little more conservative than in other states,” Turner said.
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and the Legislature have reduced the state sales tax on groceries — the largest tax cut in state history — and budgeted responsibly, he said.
“I think it’s tough on incumbents, just because the economy has been in bad shape,” he said. “I think incumbents in both parties may have a tough time. But I think our Democrats in Arkansas have done a good job and represented their constituencies well.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy for them, but I think they’re going to be in better shape than in a lot of other states.”
Turner predicted the economy will rebound by the fall and that opinions of the Democrat-led federal health care overhaul will improve.
“I think as time goes by people are going to realize the tremendous benefits of that legislation, and I don’t think it’s going to be the lightning rod that it’s been,” he said.
The law prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, bans caps on insurance claims and allows workers to transfer insurance from one job to another.
Turner also predicted Republicans will not get much traction by complaining about the federal bailouts.
“I don’t think that’s a partisan issue because (Republican U.S. Rep.) John Boozman voted for it (the Troubled Asset Relief Program),” he said, noting that the series of federal bailouts began under President George W. Bush.
Asked what impact he expects the Tea Party movement to have on the elections, Turner said the movement appears to lean Republican, but how great an impact it will have he could not predict.
The party will not endorse candidates in contested primaries, including the U.S. Senate primary race, where incumbent Blanche Lincoln is locked in a tooth-and-nail fight with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Turner would predict only that the seat will stay in Democratic control.
Eight Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination for the Lincoln’s seat.
The retirements of Democratic U.S. Reps. Vic Snyder of Little Rock and Marion Berry of Gillett. Turner said he was not concerned about those open seats because the Democrats have put forth stronger candidates than the Republicans. He also noted that whatever anti-incumbent sentiment remains by November won’t affect those races.
Turner said he was confident voters would re-elect U.S. Rep Mike Ross, D-Prescott, to the 4th District congressional seat he has held since 2001. Two Republicans, Glenn Gallas of Hot Springs and Beth Anne Rankin of Magnolia, are seeking the GOP nomination for the seat.
In the 3rd District, David Whitaker of Fayetteville is the lone Democrat running for the seat Boozman is vacating to run for the U.S. Senate — a seat that has drawn eight Republican candidates and has been in GOP control since 1967.
Asked what he thought of Whitaker’s chances, Turner said, “I think he’s going to run a good race.”
Chase Duggar, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said Turner is “living in some sort of political fantasy land.”
“We’re going to make lots of gains,” Duggar said. “Come Nov. 3, we’re going to have more Republican state legislators than ever before, we’re going to have at least one new congressman in a new district, we’re going to elect (a Republican) in the 3rd, and if things keep going the way they’re going, we’re going to have a Republican governor in Jim Keet.”
Duggar said the GOP did a better job of recruiting candidates than Democrats, noting that Republican Mary P. “Prissy” Hickerson has no Democratic opposition in her bid for the seat now held by House Majority Leader Steve Harrelson, D-Texarkana, who is term-limited.
“That’s not a heavily Republican-leaning district,” he said.