There was a time when Mark Pryor was seen as inevitable in Arkansas politics. Pryor, after all, is the son of David Pryor, former senator and governor and all-around political legend in the Natural State, second only to fellow Democrat Bill Clinton in recent lore. The younger Pryor’s rise from private attorney to the state legislature to attorney general to the U.S. Senate from 1991 to 2002 was one of the most rapid in America.
In fact, Pryor didn’t even have a Republican opponent when he came up for re-election in 2008; he pulled an astounding 80 percent of the vote against a little-known candidate from the Green Party that year.
But the purple Arkansas, which elected and re-elected Pryor to the Senate, is rapidly reddening, and with the fading of the state’s Democrats, Pryor’s chances for a third term are waning. This fall he’ll have a Republican challenger, and quite possibly an unwinnable race in front of him.
And worst of all, Pryor has an apparently unpardonable sin on his voting record — namely, that his was the deciding “yea” in favor of Obamacare.
For that reason, the Democrat will have a GOP opponent this time around. And unfortunately for Pryor, his opposition is more than token.
In freshman congressman Tom Cotton, Pryor has drawn a particularly troublesome opponent. Cotton isn’t just an Arkansas-bred, Harvard-educated, hyper-articulate constitutional scholar. He’s also a combat veteran who served as a commissioned Army officer both in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Cotton is no wilting flower in calling Pryor out for his Obamacare vote and fidelity to the highly unpopular Obama administration.
Asked about the Affordable Care Act by the Weekly Standard, Cotton didn't pull any punches: “That corrupt law," he said, "with its tangled web of mandates and fines and penalties and taxes, symbolizes everything that is wrong with Washington today."
And the challenger, who is so well-thought-of as a freshman that National Journal last year positioned him as the future of the Republican Party, is standing both rhetorically and geographically on ground Pryor can’t concede.
Geographically, Cotton’s congressional district is territory crucial to Pryor. “Cotton represents the southern part of the state and traditionally a Democrat has to carry that part,” said Terry Benham, a veteran Little Rock-based Republican political strategist on friendly terms with both candidates but working for neither in this race. “And the problem Mark faces initially, he’s at 40 percent. If you’re an incumbent and you’re at 40 percent you’ve got a lot of trouble on your hands.”
The 40 percent number comes from a Feb. 4-5 Rasmussen poll of the race which had Cotton with a 45-40 lead on Pryor, and those numbers were very similar to a December survey by Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway which had the race at 48-41 in Cotton’s favor. Public Policy Polling, a Democrat firm known as an outlier in many red-state races (though PPP did perform well in polling the 2012 presidential election), had Cotton and Pryor tied at 44 in another December survey.
An incumbent in the low 40s has to capture swing territory to have any hope to win. Thus the southern part of the state — Cotton’s constituents; his district swings from rural areas in the northwest south to Hot Springs and Texarkana and then turns east to pick up all but the extreme southeast — has been ground zero for Pryor’s attempts to define the Republican as an extremist and an ambitious demagogue.
But there’s a problem — Cotton is positioning himself rhetorically on ground that Democrats in Arkansas have claimed for decades. He sees Washington as a sewer of entitled special interests and warns against the agglomeration of power away from middle-class folks back home in towns like Dardanelle (where he’s from), Pine Bluff, El Dorado, and Hot Springs.
“The politicians and the bureaucrats [in Washington] are playing a corrupt game,” Cotton said in the speech announcing his candidacy, according to the Weekly Standard. “They’re taking your money and wasting it on big government programs that empower and enrich themselves while not serving you. They boss you around and they act like they’re your betters.
“They hand out special privileges and favors — to whom? Not hardworking Arkansans. To the politically connected and the crony capitalists who want to bend the power of government to their own private gain."
It’s that kind of populist Jacksonian rhetoric that appeals to small-town swing voters, and Pryor finds himself struggling to counter it from his privileged perch in Washington. That’s why last year when the senator launched an attack on Cotton as “Ambitious Tom” and called the 36-year-old a “young man in a hurry,” it fell flat.
“The reaction was ‘Good, because we're going to hell in a handbasket,’” said Benham. “‘Somebody needs to be in a hurry.’”
More recently, Pryor mounted an attack on Cotton for having voted in favor of a House plan that would have converted Medicare into a program of vouchers or premium support for seniors to buy private insurance, in order to impose some degree of market discipline on an entitlement rapidly spiraling toward bankruptcy.
But amid the rollout of that initiative, a glitch stole the senator’s thunder. The podium placard at Pryor’s press conference announcing the mini-campaign had the URL “TheRealTomCottonRecord.com” as the bottom line. But the micro-site the placard should have announced was TheRealCottonRecord.com, and the Cotton campaign quickly seized on the mistake and grabbed the domain in question. The effect? Visitors to TheRealTomCottonRecord.com were directed to the challenger’s website, and rather than attack Cotton, Pryor ended up giving him free advertising.
Problems like those have followed Pryor around since the race began, and while he has struggled to build a narrative, Cotton has gained steam — so much so that in the fourth quarter of 2013, Cotton actually outraised Pryor by a count of $1.24 million to $1.1 million.
And it gets worse for Pryor, because having failed to define his opponent he’ll now have to fight his re-election battle on the worst turf of all — that deciding vote in favor of Obamacare.
“Obamacare is going to dominate this election cycle,” Benham said.
There is a specific local aspect to the Obamacare debate in Arkansas. Democrat governor Mike Beebe managed to push into law, with some Republican support last year, a Medicaid expansion plan called the “private option,” which would do something not terribly dissimilar to the Medicare plan Cotton voted for in Washington — namely, that Arkansas would use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to purchase private insurance for citizens eligible for the program under the expanded availability.
But while “private option” has been touted by Democrats in other states as a policy innovation, it has flopped with Arkansas voters. Cotton has made political hay by calling it nothing more than Obamacare at the state level, and in a January state senate special election in the northeast part of the state, a traditionally Democrat district, went 57-43 for Republican John Cooper in a race almost solely decided on the “private option.”
The results were more eye-opening than you might imagine. Blogger Nic Horton of The Arkansas Project offers some context:
Keep in mind: this district includes two large regional hospitals that are supposedly going to be forced to shut their doors (one of which just opened a new $400 million facility) if Arkansas doesn’t keep its Medicaid expansion. This is a Senate district that had never elected a Republican — one that reliably sent moderate to liberal Democrats to Little Rock. This is a race in which Cooper was outspent more than 3-to-1. And despite all of that — despite the false claims that “people will die,” that we’ll “lose jobs,” and that all of this “free” federal money will be lost to other states — the voters said no.
What’s more, the private option is the single most animating issue in Arkansas politics as the legislature continues this year’s session. A House vote on whether to de-fund the private option was to occur this week with a close decision expected, and the Senate looks like even more difficult ground to fund it. The fight has gotten so nasty that Democrats are threatening a government shutdown over the issue.
But whatever the outcome of the private option, Arkansas voters just see Obamacare. And they don’t like it. Worse, they blame Pryor for it — and they attach him to President Obama.
That puts him in a box which might be very difficult to get out of. Which leads Benham to believe Pryor’s next move is one the voters have certainly seen before and aren’t all that likely to respond to.
“Pryor has a ceiling,” he says. “At this point it appears the only direction he has to go is highly negative and highly personal.
“And you don't move yourself from 40 to 51 with that. Especially when you've shot all your policy bullets.”