Beth Anne Rankin, Lane Jean among those considered possible candidates for Ross’ Congressional seat

The retirement of Arkansas’ only Democratic congressman has left both parties scrambling to find their perfect candidates for a district that had already been eyed as one of the top targets for Republicans in the 2012 election, reports the AP.

A day after Rep. Mike Ross announced he would not seek a seventh term and would instead explore a 2014 gubernatorial bid, there was no shortage of potential candidates Tuesday who were either eyeing or being encouraged to run for his seat. Though both sides said they were confident they could win the 4th congressional district, only one Republican had emerged as a definite hopeful for the seat.

“It all boils down to the best candidate,” Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe said Tuesday. “Arkansans are pretty good about selecting the person, and if the Democrats get a candidate who resonates, who the people trust and like, they’ll win. If they don’t, they won’t.” 

Finding that person may be difficult. Ross had been favored in his re-election bid, even though the district had been redrawn to include some traditionally Republican areas in northwest Arkansas. Before Ross announced his decision not to run, Republicans nationally and at home had listed his seat as one of their top targets.

Tom Cotton, a management consultant from Dardanelle who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the only announced candidate so far on the Republican side. Cotton said he had planned to run for Ross’ seat before Monday’s announcement.

Republicans say they’re preparing for a contested primary, however, with several other potential candidates weighing a run. Beth Anne Rankin, who lost to Ross in 2010, Rep. Lane Jean of Magnolia and Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado say they’re thinking about entering the race. Republicans say they’re confident they can win the seat, and point to the unpopularity of President Barack Obama as an advantage.

Another possibility for Republicans is Jay Dickey, the former congressman who Ross defeated in 2000 to win the 4th district. Dickey, who lives in Pine Bluff, said he’s been approached about a run and is concerned about the district losing seniority with Ross’ exit.

“I haven’t started considering it yet,” said Dickey, who wouldn’t say whether he had completely ruled out the idea of another run.

Democrats say several candidates who were eyeing a run in 2014, when they expected Ross to not seek re-election, are now considering whether to give the race a try next year. They include Sen. Gene Jeffress of Louann, who said he hopes to make a decision soon.

Other potential candidates include University of Arkansas Community College at Hope Chancellor and former lawmaker Chris Thomason and U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge. Neither Thomason nor Eldridge returned phone calls Tuesday about the race.

One obstacle any candidate will face is the sprawling size of the new district, which includes most of the southern part of the state and now reaches deep into the northwestern region.

“That’s got to be one of the issues,” said incoming state Senate President Larry Teague of Nashville, who said he’s been approached about a run but is unlikely to seek the seat. “Congressman Ross managed somehow to be in every community really often, and that’s going to be hard to do with that new district.”

The area carries with it a wider set of cultural and ideological differences that any candidate will have to bridge to win the seat, political observers say.

“It’ll clearly take a united Democratic party to hold the seat absent the incumbent and absent the advantages that Ross had,” said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University.

So far, none of the potential candidates appears to have the widespread name recognition or fundraising ability that Ross would have had. Democrats fear a repeat of the 2010 election, when Republicans made their greatest gains in races where neither nominee was well known and picked up two long-held Democratic congressional seats in the state.

“That was a generic ‘R’ year,” Beebe said. “We’ll see if that holds true in ’12, but yeah, that’s something that should concern everybody if they don’t know the candidates. Is it a generic ‘R’ year or a generic ‘D’ year?”

Ross acknowledged that redistricting may make his seat harder for Democrats to hold, but said he believed greater turnout in a presidential election year may help it in his party’s control.

“I think it would have been difficult, perhaps, for Democrats to hold my seat in 2014. I think it’s very doable in 2012 with the right candidate,” Ross said Monday when he announced he would not run. “I can think of 10 or 12 potential candidates, but I’ll let you figure out who they are.”

(This AP article was written by Andrew DeMillo. DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo)

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