LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas state Rep. Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas announced Wednesday that she is switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party, complaining that the state's Democrats had moved too far left for her to remain in the party.
"I have not left the Democratic Party, but the party left me," Collins-Smith said in a news conference at the state Capitol with GOP lawmakers and top party leaders.
The change narrows the Democratic edge in the 100-member state House of Representatives to 54-46. Democrats hold a 20-15 majority in the state Senate.
Collins-Smith, 49, represents a district that includes Randolph County and a portion of Sharp County in northeast Arkansas. The Democrat-controlled Board of Apportionment changed district boundaries last month after the 2010 census, and their new realignment placed her in a district with a Republican House member.
Collins-Smith said later Wednesday that she hasn't decided whether she'll run for re-election or instead run for the state Senate next year. House Minority Leader John Burris indicated it was unlikely that Collins-Smith would run against fellow Republican Rep. Lori Benedict for her House seat.
"I don't think she switched parties to have a primary," Burris told reporters.
Burris said Collins-Smith had approached him about a possible switch after the Legislature wrapped up this year's session earlier this year. He said Republicans are talking with other Democratic representatives about potentially changing parties, but would not say how many or whom.
Collins-Smith said she was raised a Democrat, but believed that the state party no longer had room for conservatives like her. She singled out Democrats' opposition to a capital gains tax cut that passed the House this year but failed before a Senate committee.
"I wanted to help move the party back to the views and the values of those everyday voters," she said. "Unfortunately, I found that the politics of Washington and the politics of the liberal left have become so entrenched in that Democratic Party of Arkansas that there's no room for real conservatives."
The party switch comes as Republicans say they believe they have a chance to win control of one or both chambers of the state Legislature. The GOP made historic gains at all levels of government in traditionally Democratic Arkansas, including at the legislative level, in last year's election.
All 135 seats in the state Legislature will be up for election next year because of redistricting.
Though the announcement won't change control of the Legislature, state and national Republicans hailed the switch as a sign of what they expect to see more of next year.
"Today's switch is a clear indication that Republicans have changed the conversation and are leading the way to turn our economy around and help job creators," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement released by the state GOP.
Democrats, however, dismissed the decision as a lawmaker disgruntled over redistricting. State Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond defended the party and noted Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's advocacy of reducing the grocery tax and other cuts.
"It becomes pretty clear that it's what she believes is a shrewd political move," Bond said. "Her statement is just cover for that."
Collins-Smith said that the redistricting map didn't factor into her decision and that she had decided after the legislative session that she wanted to change parties.
"It was after the session that I thought, 'Do I really align with the Democratic Party?' And of course the answer was, 'No,'" Collins-Smith told The Associated Press Wednesday afternoon.
Beebe said he was not surprised by Collins-Smith's announcement and said that he heard during the session that she spent more time with Republicans than her own party.
"I think everybody's better off," Beebe said.
Beebe also said he disagreed with her complaint that the state Democratic Party had drifted too far to the left.
"I find that incredible," he said. "I think you ought to ask some of those liberal Democrats in Massachusetts if they think we're very liberal down here in the Democratic Party."
House Speaker Robert Moore, D-Arkansas City, said he was surprised by the announcement but that he planned to work with all members of the chamber.
"From the beginning, I have said that cooperation is key," Moore said in a statement released by his office. "I believe we demonstrated that during the recent session, and I look forward to that same spirit of cooperation during the 2012 Fiscal Session."
Republicans hold three of the seven constitutional offices in historically Democratic Arkansas, in addition to three of the state's four U.S. House seats and one of the state's U.S. Senate seats.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo