LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Republicans inched toward a sweep of Arkansas' four U.S. House seats and aimed for a historic takeover of the state Legislature, as GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney won the state's six electoral votes and Democrats looked to a popular governor to fend off a shakeup of the political landscape.
Democrats relied on popular Gov. Mike Beebe in their bid to keep a majority in the state House and Senate. But Republicans worked to build on momentum from two years ago when it flipped a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House seats as the party expanded its influence in the state, largely based on the unpopularity of President Barack Obama.
As polls closed, both parties looked to results from 73 state House and Senate races that would determine whether Republicans take control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. The GOP was favored in congressional matchups around the state and Romney had been widely expected to win the state. Obama lost the state in 2008 and fared poorly in this May's primary.
State GOP leaders touted Romney's win in the state as a preview of the victories to come.
"We expected him to win, but the margin of victory is very good and that will help us across the state," Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said.
In Pine Bluff, 69-year-old retiree Linda Johnson said she voted for Romney because she doesn't think Obama has done enough to help the economy.
"That was a hard one," said Johnson, who four years ago voted for Obama. "I didn't really like either one of them."
Dissatisfaction led Erin Teague, 32, to vote for Romney at the Cabot Community Center on Tuesday morning.
"I just don't like the way things have been going. People can't pay their bills," said Teague, who works at a law firm that specializes in debt collection. She said she voted a straight Republican ticket.
Voting was heavy statewide. Nearly a half-million Arkansans voted early - a record - and election officials predicted that 65 percent of the state's 1.6 million registered voters would cast ballots, or about 1.04 million.
State GOP leaders wanted to build on gains they made in the state two years ago, with Republican candidates and affiliated groups running ads trying to link Democrats throughout the state to Obama and his federal health care overhaul.
Democrats in turn relied increasingly on Beebe, who was re-elected in 2010, to help his party stop a potential GOP takeover of the Legislature.
"I've been saying all along I think it's close. You see polls both ways," Beebe said Tuesday at his precinct in Searcy, where he was voting. "It's close right now. The House and Senate are close right now. I expect they'll be close one way or the other tomorrow morning."
Beebe, who leaves office in early 2015 and is not on this year's ballot, has said he wants to expand Medicaid under the new health care law when legislators return to Little Rock in January. Republicans want to explore cutting the income tax and possibly reducing state spending.
Aside from dislike of Obama, Republicans have been aided by the help of outside conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity that have spent big on the fight for the Legislature. AFP, formed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has spent more than $900,000 in the state over the past two years and sent 1.1 million mailers in 32 House and Senate districts around the state.
Democrats have been helped to a lesser extent by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which has sent mailers and run radio ads around the state.
Republicans have not had a majority in the state Legislature since 1874, a run of 138 years, and Arkansas is the only former Confederate state where Democrats control the Legislature and the governor's office.
The GOP claimed the state's only Democrat-held congressional seat in south Arkansas. Republican Tom Cotton, an Army veteran and former management consultant, defeated Democrat state Sen. Gene Jeffress in the race for retiring U.S. Rep. Mike Ross's 4th District seat.
Cotton told The Associated Press his victory showed "that Arkansans are ready for a new generation of conservative leaders, leaders who will stand on those principles of limited government and natural rights and free enterprise."
Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford was leading Democratic challenger Scott Ellington in their race for the 1st Congressional District in east Arkansas. Ellington helped negotiate the deal last year that freed three men who were convicted as teenagers in the 1993 murders of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis. Crawford, who was elected in 2010 partly on a pledge to oppose any tax increases, proposed hiking taxes on millionaires earlier this year in exchange for a balanced budget amendment.
In central Arkansas, Republican Rep. Tim Griffin was leading Democrat challenger Herb Rule in the 2nd Congressional District. Republican Rep. Steve Womack, who did not face any major party opposition after his Democratic challenger dropped his bid over questions about his military record, won re-election to his northwest Arkansas seat.
Voters will also have a say on three ballot measures, including a proposal to allow patients with certain conditions to buy medical marijuana. If approved, it would make Arkansas the first southern state to legalize medical marijuana.
The legislative races and ballot measures have overshadowed a presidential race where Arkansas has stayed on the sidelines. Obama has not visited the state since 2006, before he was a candidate, and Romney's only campaign stop in the state was a closed-door fundraiser in Little Rock.
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