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’20 challenger for U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton looking unlikely, Democratic party chief says

by John Moritz | November 26, 2019 at 7:13 a.m.
Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray is shown in Little Rock in this file photo.

No Democrat is likely to appear on the ballot next year against Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas' Democratic Party leader said Monday after reviewing the state laws applicable to replacing the aborted candidacy of Josh Mahony.

Mahony, who unexpectedly quit the race a few hours after Arkansas' candidate filing period closed Nov. 12, has since ceased communication with party leaders, Chairman Michael John Gray said Monday, frustrating the party's efforts find a legal avenue to replace Mahony.

"Barring further information provided that satisfies the statutory language in the state of Arkansas to replace a candidate, the Democratic Party will not field a candidate for the U.S. Senate," Gray said in a news conference at Democratic Party headquarters in Little Rock.

In the two weeks since Mahony announced his decision to exit the race with a tweet citing "family health concerns," talks between the Democratic Party and its former candidate appear to have broken down. Mahony has hired an attorney to represent him in future discussions.

At Monday's news conference, Gray described feelings of "shock," "a little bit of ire," as well as "genuine concern and heartfelt sympathy" after he said Mahony called to inform Gray of his decision, shortly after announcing it on social media.

The two have not spoken directly since, Gray said.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas on Monday released copies of its correspondence with Mahony's attorney, Mark Henry -- with Henry's permission -- which state that Mahony had agreed to a meeting on Nov. 18 with a number of party leaders in Little Rock, but that Mahony never showed.

Henry said Monday that the previous week's meeting became unnecessary after Mahony retained his counsel.

In a letter sent to the Democratic Party the Friday before the planned Nov. 18 meeting, Henry clarified that it was not Mahony who was sick, but a member of the former candidate's family.

On Monday, Henry said that neither he nor Mahony planned to offer the Democratic Party officials any more details regarding Mahony's family health situation.

"I think the position's clear," Henry said. "We don't understand the relevance of the request."

Under the Arkansas law that attorneys for the Democratic Party and others have pointed to -- Arkansas Code 7-7-106 -- a party may replace an unopposed primary candidate who dies or who cannot run due to "serious illness."

Annie Depper, an attorney for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said the law may allow for some wiggle room in replacing Mahony, even if he is not ill.

"It doesn't say whether it has to be the candidate or it could be a family member," she said.

If the Democratic Party did attempt to file a new U.S. Senate candidate with the secretary of state's office, the state's Republican Party has promised to sue. Democratic officials on Monday conceded that their arguments in such a legal battle would be untested, at best.

"It'd be a long shot," Gray said "However, absent any information, we don't even have the opportunity to pursue long shots."

For example, Depper said, information about who was sick and what their illness was would be evidence for a judge to consider in any potential hearing over the matter.

Henry, however, discounted the Democrats' talk of hypothetical legal arguments. He said he took no position on whether the law would allow for Mahony to be replaced.

"I don't understand why they would need to explore the facts on an untested legal theory," Henry said.

A spokesman for the Republican Party of Arkansas declined to comment Monday on Gray's news conference. The Republican Party had previously offered sympathy to Mahony's family.

Cotton's campaign, meanwhile, has taken credit for its efforts to dig up dirt on Mahony prior to his exit from the race.

In a memo from Cotton's campaign obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this month, campaign staff touted how it identified "significant vulnerabilities" in Mahony's background, which it held off publicizing until after the deadline had passed for another Democrat to join the race.

The Democrat-Gazette uncovered similar issues with Mahony's work history -- he said he could not recall the last time he had a full-time job -- and statements made on his Federal Election Commission reports. The paper reported on those discrepancies well before the start of the candidate filing period.

Gray said he had no reason to doubt Mahony's claim that a family health matter forced him out of the race.

But Mahony, who previously ran unsuccessfully for Congress in northwest Arkansas' 3rd Congressional District, would need to rebuild trust with the party's voters if he were attempt a future comeback, Gray said.

"Nobody in the Democratic Party is going to hold Josh Mahony over a fire because he has a family issue that he felt was more important to address," Gray said. "The frustration you're seeing from the party members is a lack of information, the timing, all the obvious things."

As for 2020, Gray said he felt no "defeat" in the state Democratic Party failing to run a candidate for U.S. Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. He pointed to other congressional candidates -- such as state Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock -- as top-of-the-ticket draws. Elliott will face U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican from Little Rock.

Gray said it would be "improper" for him to endorse either of the two other candidates running against Cotton in the Nov. 3 general election, Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. and independent Dan Whitfield.

Democratic voters "should go out there and look to the best candidate and vote for the best candidate," he said. "Obviously, we don't think it's Senator Cotton."

Information for this article was contributed by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 11/26/2019

Print Headline: ’20 challenger for U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton looking unlikely, Democratic party chief says


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