LITTLE ROCK — The national Democratic Party believes it will be easier to beat a Republican incumbent in Arkansas this fall than to win an open congressional seat the party has held for the past 11 years.

LITTLE ROCK — The national Democratic Party believes it will be easier to beat a Republican incumbent in Arkansas this fall than to win an open congressional seat the party has held for the past 11 years.

“The Democrats’ best chance at picking up a congressional seat in Arkansas in November will be the 1st Congressional District,” Stephanie Formas, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said last week in assessing the party’s prospects for unseating freshman Republican Congressman Rick Crawford.

Retaining the 4th District seat held by retiring Democrat Mike Ross for more than a decade will be difficult, she acknowledged.

Democrats in both districts have primary runoffs June 12 to choose the party’s nominee in the Nov. 6 general election.

In the 1st District, Prosecutor Scott Ellington of Jonesboro narrowly avoided a runoff in a three-way Democratic primary last week. He will face state Rep. Clark Hall of Marvell in next month’s runoff for the right to challenge Crawford’s bid for a second term in the 29-county district covering portions of eastern and northern Arkansas.

Crawford was the first Republican elected to represent the district in Congress since Reconstruction. He defeated Democrat Chad Causey, who had been chief of staff to long-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D- Gillett, who did not seek re-election.

Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, said because of the Democratic Party’s strong history in eastern Arkansas, he would not be surprise if the national Democratic Party spent more of its resources trying to retake the 1st District than trying to keep the 4th District.

“The national Democratic Party is going to have make a lot of choices in where they invest in races, and I think that, my view, they are much more likely to invest in the 1st District than in the 4th District simply because … I think Crawford is a very weak Republican incumbent,” Barth said.

Formas, the DCCC spokeswoman, said that while the national party is “not writing (the 4th District) off by any means,” it sees Crawford as particularly vulnerable, not only because of the district’s strong tradition of supporting Democrats but also Crawford has flipped-flopped on issues, including taxes.

Also, she said, voters in the district might not look favorably on Crawford’s votes for measures requiring seniors to pay more for health coverage and against measures benefiting farmers.

Formas pointed to a survey she said suggested Democrat could beat Crawford. A poll last fall by Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling, found that 48 percent of voters in the 1st District said they would prefer another candidate besides Crawford. Forty-three percent said they would vote to re-elect the Republican.

Crawford said last week that he would “not at all” be surprised if he were targeted by the national Democratic Party.

As for criticism that he has waffled, the congressman said he remains a strong conservative who supports continuing the Bush tax cuts and still opposes tax hikes as a way to reduce the national debt unless Congress sends to states a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Earlier this year, Crawford, who pledged not to raise taxes as a congressman and signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge championed by Grover Norquist-led Americans for Tax Reform, said he supported a 5 percent surtax on income over $1 million as part of a broader deficit-reduction plan that would include a balanced budget.

“Certainly a tax increase would be contingent on a balanced budget amendment, from my perspective,” he said. “I’m certainly not willing to raise taxes on anyone unless we are getting a permanent structural reform for the way Washington does business.”

Former said a recent $1,000 contribution made by DCCC Chairman Steve Israel’s New York Jobs PAC to Hall’s campaign does not mean the group is taking sides in the 1st Democratic runoff. She said the neither the DCCC nor its chairman endorse candidates in primaries, but that the contribution is “another sign that Democrats” see Crawford as vulnerable.

In the 4th District, the winner in the runoff pitting state Sen. Gene Jeffress of Louann against Hot Springs lawyer Q. Byrum Hurst will face well-funded Republican newcomer Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, a Harvard graduate and veteran of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who dispatched two primary opponents without a runoff.

Cotton, a conservative who pledged to help repeal the federal health care overhaul if elected, is seen as strong in the 33-county 4th District that stretches across most of the southern counties into traditionally Republican areas of western and northwestern Arkansas.

Ross, who has held the seat since 2001, has been a key member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the U.S. House.

“I think (the 4th District) is safe (for Cotton) no matter who the Democrat is,” Barth said. “I think he enters a cadre of Republicans now who are the most serious candidates for statewide office, even though he hasn’t even run the race yet or served a day in Congress.”

Formas acknowledged the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 4th District will have a difficult time against Cotton, but she said he is vulnerable.

She noted GOP opponent Beth Anne Rankin raised several issue during her primary campaign against Cotton that Democrats can used against him in the general election, including that he received about $200,00 in campaign contributions that were earmarked either through or directly from the Washington special interest Club for Growth.

“Democrats are still looking to target Tom Cotton,” Formas said.

Hurst and Jeffress did not immediately return calls seeking comment Friday, but Nicole Doris, Jeffress’ campaign spokesperson, said the DCCC and the national party “is still very active in our campaign.”

Doris said she would be surprised if the national party abandoned the 4th District race and focused all their efforts on the 1st District in the general election.

Jeffress did not immediately return a telephone call for comment Friday.