Arkansas is the only Southern state where Democrats are still a dominant electoral majority. It’s also the only state in the former Confederacy that’s never elected an African-American candidate to Congress or statewide office. Joyce Elliott hopes to change that shameful history this year.

Elliott, a state senator from Little Rock, is running for the second Congressional district seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder, who’s retiring. Much attention has been focused this spring on the Senate primary between Bill Halter and Blanche Lincoln, but Arkansas also has two open Congressional seats (Rep. Marion Berry is also retiring) this cycle, making it a prime battleground in 2010. Elliott is running in a crowded primary against Speaker of the House Robbie Wills, former Synder chief of staff David Boling and Patrick Kennedy, Director of Public Programs at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, among others. One early poll shows Elliott with a slight lead, though most of the electorate is still undecided. The candidates held their first debate Tuesday night. Here’s her opening statement:

Race is not the only factor that separates Elliott from the rest of the pack, though it does make her background particularly unique. She grew up in the dirt-poor town of Willisville, population 188, and was the first student to integrate the local high school in rural southwest Arkansas (30 minutes from Hope). “That was ugly,” she told me when we met in Little Rock. “There were no soldiers, no cameras.” Her first campaign ad recounts her biography:

She paid her way through Southern Arkansas University and went on to teach high school English for thirty-one years while becoming a leader with the American Federation of Teachers. She entered the state house in 2000 and became chairman of the House Education Committee before joining the state senate in 2008. She hasn’t been afraid to take controversial stands in the legislature, introducing hate crimes legislation to protect vulnerable minority groups and pushing for illegal immigrants who graduate high school to be eligible for college scholarships. She lost both battles, and knows these unpopular stands will be used against her, along with her race. “There are people who are absolutely convinced that it’s impossible for me to win because I’m an African-American,” she says. “That’s based on our history, having never done it before.” But, she points out, Barack Obama faced many of the same doubts before becoming president. (Obama has never been popular in Arkansas, losing the state by twenty points to McCain and the second Congressional district by ten.)

Elliott admits that the Democratic Senate primary has “sucked up all the oxygen” in Arkansas political circles. She’s remained neutral. “It’s been very divisive in the Democratic Party, which is not to say that’s a bad thing,” she says. “The party exists to have primaries. We shouldn’t be discoursing people from running for office.” But perhaps all the focus on the Senate primary helps explain why Elliott hasn’t raised as much money as expected or attracted national attention when she should be a natural ally for liberal groups like MoveOn and Emily’s List. (She has been endorsed by the Arkansas AFL-CIO.)

Her chief opponent in the race, House Speaker Robbie Wills, has already tacked to the right, saying he would’ve opposed the recently passed healthcare bill, which Elliott supports. Second district Republicans, meanwhile, are coalescing around Karl Rove-protégé Tim Griffin as their nominee, who Alberto Gonzales appointed US Attorney of Eastern Arkansas in 2006 as part of the “Attorneygate” purge. “Of course this seat could go Republican if Democrats run away from our principles,” Elliott says. “We run away in an apologetic manner far too often.” But after growing up in Willisville, nothing scares her. “I know this is difficult, but I’m not daunted by it,” she says. “I hope I’m the candidate that faces the Republicans. I know I am tough enough.”

The primary is May 18.