HOT SPRINGS, Arkansas — Trying to complete a takeover of the state's top offices this November, Arkansas Republicans touted a tax-cutting, anti-regulation message and derided Democrats as too tied to their national party as the GOP gathered Saturday for their annual convention.
The Republican nominees for statewide and congressional offices expressed confidence that the GOP would keep up its gains in what had once been a Democratic stronghold in the otherwise solidly Republican south.
"We have an opportunity to have a fresh look at Arkansas politics, Arkansas government, to put in a conservative philosophy and to create and expand our economy in this state for our children and our future," Republican gubernatorial nominee Asa Hutchinson told delegates gathered at the Hot Springs Convention Center.
Republicans have made major gains over the past two elections primarily by linking Democrats to President Barack Obama and his policies, the federal health overhaul in particular. The GOP controls both chambers of the state Legislature, two of the seven constitutional offices and all but one seat in the state's seven-member congressional delegation.
The GOP believes it's well positioned to complete that sweep, with Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor in an increasingly expensive and heated race that could help determine which party controls the Senate.
The governor's race is also one of the most closely watched in the nation, with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe unable to run because of term limits. Hutchinson faces Democratic nominee Mike Ross, a fellow ex-congressman. Hutchinson took a swipe at Ross' promise to expand the state's pre-kindergarten program, saying his Democratic rival is trying to expand a program the state isn't fully funding already.
"I want to fund the existing program before we create a new program and that's what Mike Ross wants to do," said Hutchinson, who called Ross' approach "the typical liberal response."
Ross disputed Hutchinson's criticism and said his Republican rival had distorted his proposal.
"My plan doesn't create a new program — it fully funds the current program and then gradually increases access so that every 4-year-old in Arkansas whose family wants it can have the opportunity to get a quality pre-K education," Ross said in a statement released by his campaign.
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, who is running for lieutenant governor, pledged to use the mostly ceremonial office to push for tax reforms he says will help create jobs in the state.
"There is nothing better than just policies that say come on, grow your jobs here," said Griffin, who is running against Democratic nominee John Burkhalter.
The party's nominees for two open congressional seats sounded a similar anti-Washington message, accusing Democrats of backing regulations that hurt business growth.
"I'm convinced that no one in Washington thinks that anyone in the country ... can think and get anything done for themselves and instead we need a Washington solution and a rulebook that governs our entire lives," said French Hill, who is running against Democrat Pat Hays for Griffin's congressional seat. "That is the difference between, in my view, our Republican philosophy of life and the Democrat philosophy of life."
State Rep. Bruce Westerman, the party's nominee for Cotton's south Arkansas seat, invoked the state's role in the 2016 presidential race as he addressed delegates. Westerman is running against Democratic nominee James Lee Witt, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Do you want a Democratic congressman who will chair Arkansans for Hillary in 2016?" Westerman said, referring to the possibility that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would run for president. "How about a conservative Republican congressman who will work hard to elect a conservative Republican president in 2016?"
Democrats, who hold their convention next month in Little Rock, said they believed there was a clear contrast between the two parties.
"The difference in this election is between Arkansas Democrats fighting to protect Medicare, raise the minimum wage and improve education and Republicans who want to privatize Medicare, oppose raising the minimum wage and have no plan for families and students struggling to afford a college education," state Democratic spokeswoman Lizzy Price said in an email.
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