Griffin's Surprise Exit Sets Battle for Arkansas House Seat

Image: Griffin's Surprise Exit Sets Battle for Arkansas House Seat

Thursday, 24 Oct 2013 08:31 AM

By John Gizzi

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Arkansas Republican Rep. Tim Griffin's announcement that he would not run again in 2014, after only two terms in Congress, surprised pundits and politicians from Little Rock to Washington D.C.

"I'm going to spend some time with my family," Griffin, 45, a father of two young children, told reporters on Monday. "My kids are in the years when I am starting to miss more stuff."

In terms of national politics, Griffin's exit would appear to put his 2nd District seat "up for grabs." At a time when numerous national polls show voters blaming Republicans in Congress for the recent government shutdown more than they blame President Barack Obama, Democrats believe that any open Republican-held House seat next year is an opportunity for them to reach "the magic 17" – the number of seats they need to take a majority in the House.

On Tuesday, former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays announced he would seek the Democratic nomination for the seat. Razorback State sources told Newsmax Hays is likely to have primary competition from at least one opponent – perhaps former State Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway.

In addition, several national sources have speculated about a comeback by former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who ran for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in 2010. With solid backing from organized labor and supporting the "public option" over Obamacare, Halter came within a whisk of denying renomination to then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who went on to lose that November to Republican John Boozman.

With the exception of a period from 1978-84, the Little Rock-based 2nd District has been in Democratic hands from Reconstruction until Griffin's first election in 2010.

Among Republicans, a clash is in the works that could easily be a microcosm of Republican contests nationwide. J. French Hill, chief executive officer of the Delta Trust and Banking Corp. and former Treasury Department official under George H.W. Bush, is likely to be the candidate of the GOP "establishment." The other leading Republican contender will probably be state Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway, a favorite of the tea party.

The certainty of a strong Democratic nominee and a potentially hard-fought Republican primary is strong evidence that the Washington Post was on target when it noted Tuesday that Griffin's unexpected exit "could present Democrats with an opportunity to reclaim a seat in the Deep South."

However, veteran Arkansas political columnist Rex Nelson told Newsmax he felt "Republicans will have the advantage. Obama being in office continues to be deadly to candidates with a 'D' after the name in Arkansas." Nelson noted that Republicans hold the state legislature and all statewide offices except the governorship.

Even as speculation mounts over who will succeed him, Griffin and his never-anticipated departure still left political observers speechless.

A U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and onetime Bush White House staffer under Karl Rove, Griffin, 45, was always thought of as a young man going places in politics. Boomed as a candidate for governor, he opted against a race when House Republican leaders put him on the powerful Ways and Means Committee last year.

Perhaps the closest analogy to a House member with so much potential leaving after such a short time is that of Democratic Rep. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, who surprised just about everyone by announcing his retirement in 1954 after three terms and at age 33. A decorated combat pilot in World War II and former county judge, Bentsen freely admitted he could not afford two households and raise a young family on a congressman's salary. He was leaving Congress, he said, "to establish financial independence."

After 16 years as a successful businessman, Bentsen returned to politics in 1970, won a U.S. Senate race over Republican George H.W. Bush and went on to be the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1988.

Almost as if to hint at a comeback akin to Bentsen's years in the future, Griffin told reporters "we're going to stay very involved in politics."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent with Newsmax.

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