PINE BLUFF, Ark. (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton swept through a second Arkansas campaign swing in as many weeks Sunday, hoping to keep Democrats in power at home and in the U.S. Senate.
Clinton returned to Pine Bluff, seeking the same political successes he had here in 2000 and 2002. Late-in-the-campaign rallies with predominantly black crowds helped put Mike Ross in the U.S. House and Mark Pryor in the U.S. Senate then, and both candidates need Clinton's help now.
"They assume you will show up for a presidential election but won't show up" for a midterm, Clinton said. He cited polls that he said showed that while black people comprise 16 percent of Arkansas' population, the GOP expects blacks to make up just 11 percent of voters this year.
With an unpopular Democratic president in the White House, Arkansas Republicans have made unprecedented gains since 2010. The GOP now controls the state Legislature and five of six seats in the U.S. House and Senate.
"It's game time," said Pryor, the lone Democrat whom Arkansans send to Washington. "It doesn't amount to a hill of beans if we don't get out and vote."
Early voting begins Monday.
Ross is seeking the governor's office against a former congressman who prosecuted Clinton's impeachment and who has lost three statewide races. Pryor is seeking a third term and his contest with Rep. Tom Cotton is key to control of the U.S. Senate.
Cotton's campaign said the race is about the current president, not a former one.
"We're not bothered by President Clinton's support for Mark Pryor. We're bothered by Mark Pryor's support for President Obama, whom he has voted with 93 percent of the time," Cotton spokesman David Ray said.
Clinton also campaigned Sunday for his former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt, and other statewide Democratic candidates. Witt is running to replace Cotton, a Republican giving up a south Arkansas U.S. House seat to challenge Pryor.
"You haven't had a congressman since I left," said Ross, who left the House in 2012. He criticized Cotton for launching a Senate campaign months after entering Congress.
Clinton didn't build the Democratic Party in Arkansas but has been its figurehead since inheriting the mantle from former U.S. senators David Pryor and Dale Bumpers. He spent much of Sunday's speech telling Arkansas stories, and pointing out people in the crowd, rather than pulling out his presidential credentials.
David Pryor served two terms as governor and is the current senator's father. Bumpers, another ex-governor, delivered a passionate defense of Clinton at the ex-president's impeachment trial in 1999 — a case prosecuted by then-Rep. Asa Hutchinson, Ross' opponent this year. The Republican-led House voted to impeach Clinton but the Senate acquitted him.
"This election is about the future, and Asa's plan gives hope for the future and will motivate people to vote," Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said after the Democratic rally.
Ross was a state legislator and a former driver for Clinton's political campaigns when, in 2000, he challenged Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., who had voted for two articles of impeachment against the president.
Clinton visited Pine Bluff the Sunday before that election, helping boost Jefferson County turnout in a tightly contested race. Ross carried the county by 4,000 votes and the district by 3,700.
Two years later, Ross defeated Dickey by a 3-2 margin two days after another Clinton appearance on his behalf. In that same election, Pryor defeated Asa Hutchinson's brother Tim, claiming the U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Pryor's father.
Clinton told Sunday's crowd of about 1,500 that Arkansas is unified, regardless of political differences.
"When we have a 100-year flood on the Arkansas River and everyone's filling sand bags, nobody asks to see your party card," he said.
Democrats believe turnout is key and hope to benefit from a state Supreme Court decision striking down new voter ID requirements last week.
Democrats say a voter-identification requirement unfairly targets the young and old and exit polling has shown that those voters often lean to the left. Republicans say ID requirements can eliminate voter fraud.