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Labor spends big in Arkansas House race

From Msnbc.com's Tom Curry:
With Democratic allies of organized labor under pressure in races from New Hampshire to Colorado, and our new Voter Confidence Index pointing to big losses for the Democrats on Nov. 2, union money and manpower are crucial for Democrats to retain their House and Senate majorities.

So why is organized labor spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and fielding more than a dozen organizers in an Arkansas congressional district that seems very likely to go Republican?

The race in Arkansas’ Second Congressional District between Democrat Joyce Elliott and Republican Tim Griffin is for the seat being vacated by seven-term Democrat Rep. Vic Snyder.

Elliott, the Majority Leader of the Arkansas Senate, would be the first African-American House member from Arkansas if she wins on Nov. 2.

Griffin served in the Bush White House as Deputy Political Director under Karl Rove. With Rove’s help, he was appointed federal prosecutor in Arkansas after President Bush removed Bud Cummins, one of nine U.S. attorneys ousted in 2006. Democrats charged that Bush was politicizing the hiring of federal prosecutors.

Democrats have sought to make Griffin’s role in the U.S. attorneys fracas an issue in the race. The Justice Department concluded last July that "no criminal charges are warranted" against the officials involved in the attorneys’ removal.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “Likely Republican,” one of four Democratic-held House seats in the nation which Cook puts in that category. Cook also rates 47 Democratic-held seats as toss-ups.

The NBC News Political Unit ranks it as the fourth-most likely House seat to switch parties.

Stuart Rothenberg, another independent analyst, flatly predicted last month that the Arkansas district “will flip to the GOP,” calling Griffin “a solid favorite over the liberal Elliott.”

Aruna Jain, a spokeswoman for Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate that has organizers in the district helping Elliott, said, “We really don’t think this race is a foregone conclusion. We’ve been organizing there for more than a year.”

She added, “Working people need a voice in Arkansas. There’s been a vacuum there.”

Elliott’s campaign has received more than $180,000 from several labor union political action committees, including $10,000 from the AFL-CIO PAC.

In addition to labor’s PAC money for Elliott, since Aug. 1 Working America has spent nearly $50,000 on canvassing and voter contact in the race, according to independent expenditure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

It has employed 16 workers on the race, some for stints of a few days. “As is typical for this type of work, there is some turnover as we hire new people and others leave,” Jain explained.

The Arkansas contest stands in contrast to almost all the other places where Working America has deployed foot soldiers. The group has spent thousands to bolster Democrats in toss-up races, such as Rep. Steve Driehaus in Ohio and Rep. Dina Titus in Nevada. Both were narrowly elected in 2008.

Working America has also spent heavily in the open seat race in Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District where Democrat Bryan Lentz is battling Republican Patrick Meehan. On Thursday the Cook Political Report changed its rating in that race from a Toss Up to “Lean Republican.”

The AFL-CIO and other unions spent millions of dollars in Arkansas last spring in an attempt to help primary challenger Bill Halter defeat Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said a few weeks ago on MSNBC, “We have a lady by the name of Joyce Elliott running for Congress right now. And in Arkansas, we have more volunteers because people are more excited about what they did in that (Halter-Lincoln primary) election than ever before. We think we’re going to get her elected to the Congress from Arkansas. Our members feel good about it. They’re energized about it.”

“I don't sense or see evidence of any movement” in the Arkansas House race, said long-time Arkansas News political columnist John Brummett. “The race looks fairly comfortable for Griffin at this point. But Elliott is the kind of Democrat who can stir passion in the base and Griffin, as an old Karl Rove lieutenant who horned his way into the U.S. attorney's job, is the kind of Republican who can stir passion in that same base.”