LITTLE ROCK — After a string of elections that underscored just how much Arkansas has shifted from a Democratic stronghold to solidly Republican territory, next year’s races for the state’s top offices and legislative seats appeared likely to be a relatively ho-hum, predictable affair. The possibility of the state’s junior U.S. senator stepping down to lead intelligence for the Trump administration could upend the campaign.
The possibility that Sen. Tom Cotton could leave office next year to run the Central Intelligence Agency could open the door to a nationally watched race that would overshadow any other contest before voters next year. That race could include a brutal Republican primary that would highlight the divisions within the GOP just a few years after it became the majority party here. It could also test whether Arkansas Democrats have a bench and a message to overcome long odds in one of President Donald Trump’s friendliest states.
Cotton’s appointment as CIA director is reported to be part of a plan considered by Trump to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with the agency’s current director, Mike Pompeo. Cotton so far has brushed aside questions about the potential move, calling it idle speculation.
“Last time I checked, the CIA has a director and he’s doing a pretty good job, and I’m pretty happy serving the people of Arkansas in the Senate,” Cotton said last week.
The biggest question if Cotton leaves is who would replace him, and for how long. It would be up to Gov. Asa Hutchinson to appoint a successor to Cotton. If Cotton’s seat is vacated by July, that appointee would serve until a replacement is elected in the November 2018 election. If the vacancy occurs later, the appointee would serve the rest of Cotton’s term through the end of 2020.
An election for Cotton’s seat next year could have ripple effects on some of the state’s top offices, with some of the state’s top Republicans having to choose between likely safe re-election bids or a more contentious, costly race. The names that have been floated included U.S. Reps. French Hill and Steve Womack, as well as Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, all of whom are seeking re-election next year. It could also open the door to political outsiders with the hope that Trump’s victory in Arkansas last year would translate into support for another anti-establishment candidate.
A primary could also expose divisions among Republicans that have already come up in the Legislature, such as over the future of the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion and social issues such as LGBT rights.
A 2018 Senate campaign would also be a major test for Democrats as they try to rebuild after an election that solidified Arkansas’ status as a reliably GOP state. The party so far still lacks candidates for some of the state’s top offices, including governor and attorney general, and its hopefuls for Arkansas’ U.S. House seats are political newcomers. Could any of the state party’s more established figures be coaxed to take on a race that would be an uphill challenge, even in an election where Democrats nationally hope to take advantage of Trump’s unpopularity?
“Anytime you put another position such as a U.S. Senate seat on the ballot, interest arises more,” state Rep. Michael John Gray, who chairs the Arkansas Democratic Party, said last month. “People that were maybe sitting on the sidelines until 2020 are now engaged, and it would definitely change the game plan.”
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo