- Associated Press - Sunday, June 8, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Outside groups have long been playing a major role in Arkansas’ top campaigns, spending millions of dollars on nationally watched races for the U.S. Senate and governor. Tuesday’s primary runoff will test just how much clout they have in matchups farther down the ballot.

It will also signal just how much they’re willing to wade into contests within a Republican Party that believes it’s on the verge of taking over the state’s top office.

The two biggest races on the ballot in Tuesday’s runoff have been highlighted by the involvement of conservative groups trying to link Republican candidates to a president and other national Democratic leaders who remain deeply unpopular in the state.

The targets include Leslie Rutledge, who’s running against fellow Little Rock lawyer David Sterling in the GOP runoff for attorney general. The Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington-based group, has been airing television ads and sending out mailers praising Sterling for proposing a “Stand Your Ground” law that would allow someone to use deadly force in self-defense without the duty to retreat.

The same advertising criticizes Rutledge for not advocating a similar measure and accuse her of being on the same page as Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Meanwhile, Fayetteville-based Conduit for Action has been campaigning against state Rep. John Burris’ bid for a north Arkansas state Senate seat. The group is trying to make an example of Burris, an architect of the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion, as he runs against Scott Flippo in Tuesday’s runoff.

Like Rutledge, Burris is being forced to defend his conservative credentials over charges that his position makes him no different than the Democratic president he’s spent the past several years criticizing. Rutledge has tried to highlight JCN’s involvement, calling it a “Beltway Bandit” group that’s trying to buy the seat for Sterling. Sterling has said he didn’t know about the ads before they aired and hasn’t coordinated with the group, but said he doesn’t find them inaccurate.

Candidates’ complaining about outside groups getting involved is nothing new in Arkansas. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor has made the involvement of groups like Americans For Prosperity an issue in his bid against Republican rival Tom Cotton. Cotton’s campaign, meanwhile, has noted Pryor also enjoys the benefit of outside groups like the Senate Majority PAC airing ads.

Outside groups have even emerged as a player in judicial races. A Virginia based group ran ads criticizing Tim Cullen during his unsuccessful bid for the state Supreme Court last month, trying to portray him as sympathetic to sex offenders because he served as a court-appointed attorney to a man convicted of possessing child pornography. Cullen ultimately lost the race, despite widespread criticism about the ad.

The predicament over outside groups in this week’s races aren’t that different from the one Blanche Lincoln faced as she fended off attacks from outside groups in her bid for a third term four years ago. Then, the incumbent Democratic senator was complaining about labor unions backing former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s attempt to oust her from office.

It’s a theme she trumpeted throughout her primary and runoff fight with Halter, and she was aided by former President Bill Clinton’s warning that voters shouldn’t let outside groups interfere in the state’s politics.

“It became about whether or not the people of Arkansas, who are great people, were going to continue to be hammered by special interest groups that simply wanted to manipulate them and their vote,” Lincoln said after defeating Halter in her primary runoff election. Lincoln, however, went on to lose to Republican John Boozman that fall.

Then, as now, the fear was whether the outside groups’ involvement only help the rival party in the long run.

At least one voter last week indicated they did.

Walter Hutchison, 66, said he’s a longtime Democrat who will vote for Democratic Rep. Nate Steel in the fall election, but cast a ballot for Rutledge at a downtown Little Rock polling site during early voting for the runoff last week. Hutchison said he did so in response to the JCN ads running against her, saying he hoped to prevent similar groups from meddling in the fall election.

“I don’t want to see those ads again in the general election …,” Hutchison said.


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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