LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Running for a congressional seat in a red state that went for Donald Trump two years ago, Clarke Tucker talks often about his bout with cancer and the federal care health law that expanded coverage for those without insurance.
"I beat cancer here and became one of the million Arkansans with a pre-existing condition," he says in one television ad, standing in front of a cancer institute in Little Rock.
But Tucker doesn't talk much about being a Democrat, something that's a deal breaker for many voters in a state that hasn't sent one to the U.S. House in eight years. The fact that the 37-year-old state legislator is making a surprisingly competitive bid to unseat a Republican congressman is boosting his party's hopes that it can still find issues that attract voters in conservative places.
Tucker is challenging incumbent Republican French Hill in the 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses Little Rock and seven central Arkansas counties. The urban section gives Democrats a better chance than the state's other three districts, which are mostly rural. Nationally, Democrats' hopes of flipping 23 Republican seats in November and regaining control of the House may depend on winning some races in Trump country like this one.
In 2016, Trump won 52 percent of the district's vote. To prevail now, Democrats will need a heavy turnout in Little Rock and its surrounding county, which is about 37 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. They'll also need to make inroads in the conservative suburbs and farm country around it.
Hill, a 61-year-old former banker, easily won his second term in 2016 by more than 20 percentage points, but this time is on defense. He greeted Tucker to the race over the summer with a television ad portraying him as an ally of national Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. A new TV ad criticizes Tucker for the times he voted "present" or didn't vote on controversial bills in the state House.
Tucker has made health care a central theme of his campaign while distancing himself from national Democrats — saying that, if elected, he wouldn't support Pelosi as the party's House leader — and rarely brings up President Trump.
"I'm really focused on the people I want to represent, the people out here and the issues affecting them," Tucker said as he went door-to-door in a Little Rock neighborhood.
The great-great grandson of a late 19th and early 20th century senator and governor whose statue is on display at the U.S. Capitol, Tucker comes from a well-known family steeped in the district's politics. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee saw Tucker as the party's best chance for winning Hill's seat.
Tucker has bombarded the district with ads citing his bladder cancer diagnosis. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy last year and is now cancer-free. Tucker said the experience and House Republicans' vote to repeal the health care law motivated him to challenge Hill. (The repeal later failed in the Senate.)
"The notion of having access to care, with a pre-existing condition, without going bankrupt or dying became a lot less abstract for our family," Tucker said at a campaign rally at Philander Smith College, a historically black school in Little Rock.
Democrats believe the health insurance issue resonates especially in Arkansas, where 17 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Arkansas expanded Medicaid under its former Democratic governor and kept the program under his Republican successor, although with new work requirements. An additional 280,000 people received coverage under the expansion.
At the Philander Smith rally, Tucker asked those gathered in a packed room to raise their hand whether they had a pre-existing condition. Most hands went up.
Tucker is counting on his personal history to land the message. Other Democrats in tough races are using a similar approach, including North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who talks about being a breast cancer survivor in a TV ad, and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who has highlighted her own pre-existing condition from a childhood illness similar to spinal meningitis. The issue isn't surefire. Former Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor emphasized his own cancer diagnosis in his unsuccessful re-election bid in 2014.
Hill's campaign fund dwarfs Tucker's — at $1.6 million, about four times his challenger's total. At least one Republican political action committee is running online ads and sending mailers targeting Tucker. The Democrats' House Majority PAC has returned fire with online ads criticizing Hill.
There's been no recent public polling in the race, and the Republican congressman denies that the heated activity shows that he's worried.
"I haven't seen any polling data whatsoever that would indicate that I have more of a race than normal this year," Hill said. "But I see financial resources that cause me to step up, pay strong attention, run an aggressive campaign."
Hill says he has no regrets about voting to repeal the federal health care law, which he calls "broken."
Tucker's hopes rest on voters like Nicy Johnson, 80, who attended Tucker's rally at Philander Smith. She supported Hill two years ago, even though he promised then to try to repeal the health care law, but said she's switching to Tucker now.
"I thought it was to get the vote. ... I didn't think they'd do it," she said.