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The GOP Has Its Eyes On Another Election Day Prize: Arkansas

Arkansas voters are about to make history, one way or another.

Democrats have selected as their incoming House leader Darrin Williams, who would serve as the state's first African-American speaker.

But Williams might never get to hold the gavel. Republicans believe they have a good shot at taking control of the Arkansas House -- and Senate -- for the first time since 1874.

"It is going to be the equivalent of plates shifting in an earthquake," says Tim Griffin, a Republican congressman from Arkansas. "It's going to be unlike anything this state has ever seen politically."

The two chambers in Arkansas are among roughly a dozen nationwide that Republicans believe they have a chance of winning on Nov. 6. Democrats believe they have a shot at an equal number of chambers, making it quite possible there will be little net change in state legislative control next week.

Even so, there's likely to be unusually high turnover among individual legislators.

Already, 1,400 legislators won't be coming back for another term owing to retirements and primary losses, while an additional 300 incumbents will lose their seats in the 6,000 legislative elections being held Tuesday, according to Tim Storey, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"This year may be as unpredictable a year as we have seen in over a decade," Storey says.

A small net gain by either party would represent a big change from recent election cycles. Democrats scored big at the state level in both 2006 and 2008; however, those gains were more than wiped out by a historic GOP sweep in 2010.

Republicans took control of 20 chambers two years ago and won more state legislative seats than at any time since 1928. Currently, they have majorities in 59 chambers, compared with 37 for Democrats. (Nebraska's unicameral is technically nonpartisan but in effect run by Republicans.)

It's going to be difficult for Democrats to win back much of the territory they lost two years ago, because Republican lawmakers were able to draw favorable maps in the most recent round of redistricting, which followed the 2010 census.

Still, even if the overall numbers aren't likely to shift much, considerable fighting is taking place within individual states. Democrats are fighting hard to keep control of the senates in a number of presidential battleground states: Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.

They also hope to keep their hard-won, 17-16 majority in the Wisconsin Senate. Although Democrats failed in their attempt to oust GOP Gov. Scott Walker, they managed over the course of nine expensive recall elections in 2011 and 2012 to oust three Republican state senators, taking narrow control of the chamber.

Republicans want that chamber back. But even as they go on offense in Wisconsin, they'll have to play defense in elections in states such as Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York.

There may be no state that Republicans are eyeing as eagerly as Arkansas. Twenty years ago, Republicans didn't control a single chamber in the South. Now, Arkansas is the lone Democratic holdout in the Deep South. (Democrats also control both chambers in West Virginia and the Kentucky House.)

In fact, Arkansas is the only state whose Legislature has never changed partisan control in either the 20th or 21st centuries, says Story, of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Arkansas Republicans fell short two years ago, in part because Democratic legislators were aided by the popularity of Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. He carried every single county in the state in his re-election bid then.

This time around, however, Democrats are being hurt by the top of the ticket. Barack Obama lost Arkansas in 2008 by 19 points. Local observers believe he'll lose again Tuesday -- and that even keeping his margin of defeat around the same level would be a considerable accomplishment.

"Republicans have done a pretty good job of tying control of the Arkansas Legislature to Obama," says Jay Barth, chairman of the department of politics and international relations at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

Local GOP efforts to tie Arkansas Democrats to the president have been aided by outside groups -- notably Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has spent roughly $1 million in the state attacking the 2010 Affordable Health Care Act and holding state Democrats complicit in its passage.

"It's the ultimate trickling down of partisan politics," says Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. "It's harder in today's media environment for the relatively moderate or conservative Arkansas Democrats to make a credible claim that they're different from the national Democrats."

By contrast, Democrats haven't been able to pin blame on the Republican Party as a whole for embarrassing statements by individual GOP candidates, who have contended that slavery "may actually have been a blessing in disguise," decried Abraham Lincoln as a "war criminal" and advocated the death penalty for "rebellious children."

"It's an issue in those particular races, but the Democrats tried to attach them to the rest of the ticket and it just didn't seem to take," says Barth, who ran unsuccessfully in a Democratic Senate primary two years ago.

Aside from such attention magnets, Bass says, Republicans are attracting more candidates than they ever have before for legislative posts, and most of them are of higher quality.

Throughout much of the state's history, bright, young political types ran under the Democratic banner regardless of their ideology, Bass says. That's changed. Now, ambitious conservatives believe they not only have a home but perhaps greater opportunity within the Republican Party.

That's one reason why people in Arkansas, as they do in other parts of the South, believe once their state goes Republican, it will be a long time before it ever shifts back.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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