- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A Senate challenger who has never run for public office before, Conner Eldridge hopes to offer a fresh face for Democrats in Arkansas after an election where some of the party’s biggest names were swept up in a Republican tide.

But at the same time he’s relying on the party’s old playbook of running to the right of its national leaders in a state where President Barack Obama remains politically toxic.

Eldridge’s bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman will test whether that strategy has any traction, especially after three elections where the GOP has become the majority party hitting an anti-Obama message. It can also test just how much the GOP can continue capitalizing on Obama’s unpopularity after the president leaves office.

Calling Washington “broken,” Eldridge is touting his nearly five years of work as the U.S attorney for the Western District of Arkansas as evidence he can work in a bipartisan way to get things done.

“I’m ready to go to the Senate and approach the job of a senator in that nonpartisan, result-driven way that cuts through the partisanship and problems in Washington to get things done for Arkansas,” Eldridge said shortly after announcing his bid.

Eldridge’s low-key campaign launch - announcing via a press release and a series of interviews with reporters - is a stark contrast to the last Senate campaign blitz Arkansas endured. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor was unseated in his bid for a third term in November by Republican challenger Tom Cotton in a race that was marked by millions of dollars in television ads and daily attacks from both sides.

The Boozman-Eldridge matchup is unlikely to match the price tag or vitriol of that race. Republicans’ takeover of state and federal offices last year make it less likely outside groups will play as much of a role in the Senate race, especially when compared to more competitive states.

Eldridge, however, is signaling he’ll try the same approach that Pryor and former Sen. Blanche Lincoln - whom Boozman defeated in 2010 - tried in their unsuccessful bids. He’s distancing himself from Obama on key issues, including opposing the Iran nuclear deal backed by the White House and saying he personally opposes abortion except in instances of rape, incest or the life or health of the mother.

He’s also trying to strike a careful balance on other issues, stopping short of saying whether he would have backed the federal health care law but opposing efforts to repeal it. He said he was “appalled” by secretly recorded videos released by an anti-abortion group showing Planned Parenthood officials describing how they provide fetal tissue from abortions for medical research, but doesn’t think the federal government should be shut down over the push to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.

Eldridge’s stances come as state Democrats have indicated they’re trying to move away from the center on some issues as they try to rebuild and gain support, especially from younger voters. The state party has criticized Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s decision to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood over the videos, and cheered the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Eldridge faces the same challenge Pryor and Lincoln did, with Republicans eager to tie him to Obama. Boozman last week said it was fair to highlight Eldridge’s connection as an Obama appointee, echoing criticism from his party.

“Certainly if you’re appointed by the president, voted for him twice, you supported the policies that have come out of Washington,” Boozman said. “Those are what the people of Arkansas want to know about, so I think it is fair game.”

Eldridge defended his time as a federal prosecutor, saying he was appointed with bipartisan support and noting that the job included prosecuting drug traffickers and child abusers.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with politics,” Eldridge said.

The hard part for Eldridge over the next 14 months will be separating himself from the state’s politics.

___

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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