LITTLE ROCK — Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr said Thursday that he's dropping out of the race to represent south Arkansas in Congress amid ethics questions over his campaign finance reports.
The decision came less than three weeks after Darr announced he was seeking the 4th District seat, hoping to replace incumbent Tom Cotton. Cotton, a Republican, is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor next year.
"After careful thought and deliberation I will not be seeking the 4th District position in the United States Congress," Darr said in a statement. "I feel that my priority needs to be focused on my family and sometimes trying to achieve titles gets in the way of that."
Darr faces questions shortly after taking office when he reported hundreds of dollars spent at restaurants and gas stations as fundraising expenses. Darr filed an ethics complaint against himself and said he planned to amend his campaign finance reports to classify the spending as repayment of debts that his campaign owed him.
State House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman and Hot Springs businessman Tommy Moll are seeking the Republican nomination for the seat, while Hot Springs community college instructor Janis Percefull is running for the Democratic nomination.
Darr reported the errors shortly after a website raised questions about the expenses that didn't appear to be related to raising money to pay off the loan he made for his successful 2010 bid for the lieutenant governor's office. Darr said he was filing amended reports and was prepared to accept any penalties from the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
He didn't mention the ethics questions in his statement Thursday and he declined to answer questions. He indicated that he would not resign from his current role because of the ethics questions, and he didn't say whether he would endorse anyone in the congressional race.
"I look forward to serving out my current term as lieutenant governor and helping my friends get elected or re-elected should they desire my assistance," Darr said.
Darr said later Thursday that he didn't know whether he'd seek re-election next year. Republican Reps. Charlie Collins and Andy Mayberry are seeking the GOP nomination for his seat. Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter is the only Democrat running.
"I think what I need to do is get this cleared up at the Ethics Commission first before I even worry about that," he told the Talk Business website.
Darr also told the site he may owe money to his campaign over the spending.
Darr filed the complaint days after the Blue Hog Report, a Democrat-leaning blog, detailed hundreds of dollars Darr reported spending in campaign funds, including $1,500 on Arkansas Razorbacks football tickets. Matt Campbell, the lawyer who runs the blog, has filed a separate complaint against Darr over the spending and several other potential ethics violations.
"As this was my first race for public office, the ins and outs of campaign finance reporting were new to both me and my campaign staff," he said last week.
Darr said his campaign owed him more than $120,000 after his 2010 bid. Darr reported last month that his campaign still owed him more than $18,000 he'd loaned it during his lieutenant governor's bid.
Darr is the latest public official in Arkansas to come under scrutiny for ethics issues. Democratic Sen. Paul Bookout resigned last week after the state Ethics Commission said he spent thousands of campaign dollars on clothing, home theater equipment and other personal items. The panel reprimanded Bookout and fined him $8,000. A special prosecutor has been appointed to see whether Bookout should face any charges.
State Democrats said they believed exiting the race was the right thing for Darr to do, but stopped short of calling for his resignation.
"It's clear that the glass house from which Republicans have been standing in when it comes to ethics and the law is quickly coming down on them," Candace Martin, the party's executive director, said in an email. "However, it's up to Lt. Gov. Darr to determine whether resignation or further action is needed before the ethics commission investigation is complete, and the Republican candidates currently running for this office must decide if they are ready to challenge one of their own incumbents and stay in the race."
Darr launched his campaign Aug. 12 with a promise to fight the federal health care law in Congress, taking a swipe at Westerman for his handling of debate in the Legislature on expanding insurance coverage. Westerman questioned Darr's experience, pointing out he had served in a mostly ceremonial role as lieutenant governor.
Westerman and Moll thanked Darr for his service.
"I salute him for being an important part of the historic 2010 election that started our state down the path of common-sense conservative government — a path we must continue to move forward upon in order to create a brighter future for our state," Westerman said in a statement released by his campaign.
Darr was elected lieutenant governor in 2010, when Republicans won three of the state's seven constitutional offices. He pushed for the creation of an "online checkbook" where Arkansans could look up information about state spending.
He clashed earlier this year with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe after Darr signed a law while the governor was out of state making secret the names of Arkansans allowed to carry concealed handguns. Beebe later criticized Darr for the move.