LITTLE ROCK — With control of the Legislature at stake this fall, heated legislative races have produced a barrage of attack ads that Democrats and Republicans alike contend have crossed the line between partisan rhetoric and political smears.
Both sides expect the onslaught to get worse with the Nov. 6 general election less than two months away, raising questions about whether the scorched earth that results will produce cooperation or Washington-style gridlock.
“It definitely makes it tougher,” said Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, one of a number of Republicans targeted in an online ad by the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
“I think there are going to be more of these,” said Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, one of a number of Democrats targeted in a mailer paid for by the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which supports Republicans. “This is only the beginning. They tell me that in the last week before the election they will be coming almost daily.”
All 135 legislative seats are up for election this year after redistricting in 2011 in accordance with the 2010 U.S. Census. Eighteen contested Senate races and 54 contested House races are on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Currently, Democrats control the Senate 20-15 and the House 53-46. After making significant gains in 2010, Republicans expect to control both chambers after this year’s elections for the first time since Reconstruction, though Democrats dispute the notion.
In recent weeks, candidates from both parties have decried some political ads as unfair and misleading.
Bell, who is running for re-election to a second term against Democratic challenger Lewis Diggs of Bonnerdale, cited an online ad sponsored by the Democratic Party that lists budget deficits and “drastic” budget cuts for education and prisons in surrounding states, and suggests Bell wants the same for Arkansas.
It urges voters to vote for Democrats to “continue” the agenda of Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat.
The ads “are negative and basically drawing conclusions about what we will do, rather then anything related to our record or each of us individually,” Bell said.
Candace Martin, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, defended the online ads.
“The crux of the ad is essentially Republicans that are running for the state Legislature have made it clear that they are going to oppose continuing Gov. Beebe’s agenda and … move Arkansas backward,” Martin said. “This is informing Arkansas families who are concerned about moving away from that agenda and reversing the progress that our state has made.”
She said the ad does not target all Republicans seeking legislative seats, but she did not know exactly how many.
An Americans for Prosperity mailer targets Democrats who voted in 2011 to refer two highway initiatives to voters.
One of those measures, which would raise the state sales tax by one-half cent for 10 years to support a $1.8 billion four-lane highway bond program, will appear on the November general election ballot.
The other proposal authorized the governor to call a special election to decide a proposal that would raise the state diesel tax by 5 cents per gallon to fund a 10-year, $1.1 billion bond program for highway improvements. The proposal was scuttled last year after the Arkansas Trucking Association, which initially supported the plan, backed out because its polling showed weak support among voters.
The Americans for Prosperity mailer accuses Wilkins and other Democrats of supporting a fuel tax “that would make diesel fuel in Arkansas the most expensive in the entire region.”
“They claim I raised the cost of living on my constituents, when you know, that’s just not true,” Wilkins said, adding that he only voted to send the measure to the ballot for voters to decide. “They’re trying to pass this off as truth and it’s not.”
Wilkins faces Republican John Cooper of Jonesboro in the general election.
At least one Democrat targeted by the mailer, Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, sent out a mailer of his own defending his voting record and noting that he supported measures that lowered the sales tax on groceries and used cars.
“Don’t be fooled and believe lies told by special groups!,” Nickels’ mailer reads. “Washington D.C. politics don’t belong in Arkansas.”
Nickels faces Republican Alan Pogue of Sherwood and independent Jim George, also of Sherwood, in November.
Teresa Oelke, director for AFP Arkansas, did not return a call seeking comment Friday. However, she defends the mailer on the group’s website.
“Politicians advance things with which they agree,” she said. “They should have protected Arkansas taxpayers and our jobs by simply voting against these bad economic policies.”
Beebe said last week he was aware of both ad campaigns, and he said he hopes all of the candidates can forget about them after the election.
“Some people look at it as political rhetoric, campaign season rhetoric, and are not deterred from trying to work together to address issues that the people sent them here for,” the governor said.
“Some people will harbor resentment and will make it much more difficult for people to be able to work together,” he said. “It will depend on the individual personalty of the person who gets elected and how they feel about tactics, or ads or approaches to their particular race.”
Beebe, who said there are some Republicans he gets along with and some he does not, said he hopes voters understand that politics can be bruising, but that they also want elected officials to work together after the election.
“I think what is getting lost in all this is that regardless of all the outcomes of these races, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the relative split in the General Assembly is going to be close to 50-50, and so that is going to require a significant amount of working together because most appropriation bills, for example, take much more than a simple majority to get them passed,” the governor said.
If the Legislature does not work together, “whoever is identified as not working together will suffer, in my opinion, the wrath of the voters the next time around because Arkansans just despise what is going on in Washington,” he said. “They just despise it.”
Bell said that, if he wins, putting aside partisan hard feelings after the election may be difficult, but not impossible.
“I think all of us in the public arena, on some level, understand that we still have the responsibility to govern, even with people that have made it very personal,” he said.