Romney, McCarthy praise Arkansas GOP hopefuls

JONESBORO — Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy praised their party's nominees for governor and Congress in Arkansas, as the state GOP enlisted the help of national figures to boost their campaigns.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who won more than 60 percent of the vote in Arkansas in his unsuccessful 2012 White House bid, touted Republican gubernatorial hopeful Asa Hutchinson's tax cut and education plans as the two appeared at a fundraiser in northeast Arkansas. Earlier that day, McCarthy campaigned with the party's nominees for two open U.S. House seats in central and southern Arkansas.

"You have a choice of someone who has a plan to actually help the people of Arkansas and that will have an impact across the nation," Romney told reporters at a news conference before the fundraiser at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Hutchinson sought to use the visit to try to portray Democratic rival and fellow ex-congressman Mike Ross as too closely allied with President Barack Obama, who remains deeply unpopular in the state, and other national Democratic figures. The two are running to succeed popular Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.

"I think it's a good reminder to the people of Arkansas that there's two different choices as to what team you're involved with," Hutchinson said. "We've made a point that Mike Ross has been involved with the (House Democratic leader) Nancy Pelosi team."

Ross accused Hutchinson of focusing on divisive politics.

"I'm not interested in playing Congressman Hutchinson's divisive, partisan games to try and divide this state into red teams or blue teams," Ross said in a statement released by his campaign. "We are too small a state to bring that type of Washington-style deadlock and dysfunction to Arkansas."

McCarthy, meanwhile, campaigned for the Republican Party's nominees for open U.S. House seats in central and southern Arkansas. Speaking at Welspun Tubular in Little Rock, McCarthy touted banking executive French Hill's bid for the 2nd Congressional District and accused his Democratic rival, former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays, of not supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.

McCarthy and Hill's campaign cited a letter Hays signed in 2011 along with 22 other mayors expressing concerns about the project.

"We want to move forward to actually have an energy policy that makes us energy-independent, and that starts right here in Arkansas," McCarthy said. "It starts right here at Welspun and it starts right here in November in the election, the difference between a job creator and someone who wants to stop it."

Hays' campaign dismissed the criticism, accusing Hill of relying on the leader of a "broken Congress" for his campaign.

"Mayor Hays initially had some questions on the impact of the pipeline, received an evaluation and now supports it — which French could have found out by going to his website," Hays campaign manager David Furr said.

McCarthy also headlined a rally for state Rep. Bruce Westerman, the GOP's nominee for south Arkansas' 4th Congressional District. Westerman is running against Democratic nominee James Lee Witt, who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency under former President Bill Clinton.

Both parties are focusing on the races, which have been mostly overshadowed by the increasingly expensive Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton.

Wednesday's appearances are among a string of visits by national GOP figures to the state. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus visited with local volunteers in Little Rock on Tuesday, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is scheduled to campaign for Hutchinson next week. Romney also planned an appearance with Cotton on Thursday morning