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Arkansas candidates make final pitches before primary

May 21, 2018
A roll of stickers awaiting distribution to early voters sits on a table at the check-in station at the Pulaski County Courthouse Annex in Little Rock, Ark., on Monday, May 21, 2018. Early voting ended Monday for Arkansas' primary and judicial general election, which occurs Tuesday. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)
A roll of stickers awaiting distribution to early voters sits on a table at the check-in station at the Pulaski County Courthouse Annex in Little Rock, Ark., on Monday, May 21, 2018. Early voting ended Monday for Arkansas' primary and judicial general election, which occurs Tuesday. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas legislator touted by national Democrats as the party’s best chance to reclaim a Little Rock-area congressional district and rivals portraying themselves as more progressive as health care made their final pitches to voters on Monday ahead of the state’s primary.

State Rep. Clarke Tucker said he felt optimistic about his chances of winning the Democratic nomination to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill in the 2nd Congressional District, which covers Little Rock and seven counties in central Arkansas. Tucker is running against school teachers Paul Spencer and Gwen Combs and Jonathan Dunkley, the director of operations for the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service. If no one wins a majority of the vote Tuesday, the top two will head to a June 19 runoff.

Tucker was encouraged to run by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and has outpaced his rivals in fundraising, but said he disagreed with the description of the race as one pitting the party’s establishment versus its grass roots. Tucker got another boost Tuesday, winning the endorsement of former Gov. Mike Beebe and former Gov. and U.S. Sen. David Pryor.

“We’ve been knocking on several thousand doors and making thousands of phone calls. That’s as grass roots as it gets,” Tucker said.

Tucker’s three rivals have called for a single-payer “Medicare-for-all” health care system, while Tucker is backing a more moderate approach that would allow people to opt-in to the program. One of his rivals suggested voters in the district would reject that approach and the national support for Tucker.

“This is an idea of the canned, national, prepackaged party platform against people with ideas that are predicated on the needs of the actual people in the district,” Spencer said.

Tuesday’s ballot will also feature a non-partisan race for the state Supreme Court that’s been dominated over the past few weeks by a spending blitz from out-of-state conservative groups that’s prompted a court fight over one of the group’s ads. Two judges gave conflicting orders about the Judicial Crisis Network’s ad attacking Justice Courtney Goodson, with one ordering Little Rock area stations to stop running the spot and another ruling it could air in northwest Arkansas.

Goodson, who is running against state Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Hixson and Department of Human Services Chief Counsel David Sterling, filed three lawsuits aimed at halting the ads. The conservative group has spent more than $871,000 on TV ads targeting Goodson and Hixson, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Goodson said the ruling helps level the playing field against the outside spending, but said she believed there was already pushback from voters to the ads.

“Voters don’t like it and they have good noses. They can smell a rat here, and that rat is dark money,” she said.

Hixson also vented frustration about the ads targeting him.

“Negative advertising has always worked, and it’s working now,” Hixson said. “I’ve probably gotten 50 calls at my office telling me what a jerk I am and what a sorry person I am, so I’m pretty hot right now.”

If no one wins a majority of the vote in the high court race, the top two candidates advance to a runoff in the November election. Another group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, has spent more than $564,000 on TV ads and mailers supporting Sterling. Sterling said he’s not connected to either group’s ads and said he’s focusing on his own campaign.

“They do have a constitutional right to speak just like anybody else in this race. I’m just not involving myself in their dispute they have with either one of the parties,” Sterling said.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson got a boost in his effort to fend off a challenge from the right in Tuesday’s primary, with President Donald Trump endorsing the incumbent governor. Hutchinson faces Hot Spring gun range owner Jan Morgan in the primary.

Trump tweeted Monday night that Hutchinson “has done an incredible job with a focus on lower taxes, border security, and crime prevention.

“Asa loves our military and our veterans. I fully endorse Asa for Governor!” the president wrote on Twitter.

Jared Henderson, a former Teach for America official, and Leticia Sanders, a hair braider from Maumelle were seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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