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Mark Pryor and Mary L. Landrieu begin the 2014 election cycle as two of the most vulnerable Democratic senators. Each faces re-election in states where President Barack Obama and national Democrats are deeply unpopular.
But Pryor and Landrieu have at least one distinct advantage over any potential GOP opponent. Their names — brands, even — have been hewed into the Arkansas and Louisiana political firmaments, respectively, by years of family service. That makes voting for each more than just a choice: It’s something of a family tradition.
Democrats believe that family element gives the senators a brand that will be independent from the national party and will help inoculate them against the strain of GOP attacks to come.
Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who’s based in Alabama and has worked for a number of conservative Democrats, said the family legacy still matters in Louisiana and Arkansas, unlike some other Southern states where “voters have moved past that.”
“These are both names and personalities,” Anzalone explained. “Both of ’em work really hard, but they do defy party politics, and they grab a unique number of independents and Republicans to their side.”
Pryor’s father, David, served as a congressman, governor and senator in Arkansas, retiring from the Senate in 1997. Landrieu’s father, Moon, was mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s. Her brother, Mitch, is the current mayor of the Big Easy. But with three terms in the Senate, the Landrieu brand is more about the senator than anyone else.
“The Landrieu name has its pull, especially with black voters,” said John Maginnis, a longtime nonpartisan Louisiana political analyst. “But it’s reached a point now where Mary’s well-established in her own right.”
Being a known entity in their respective states doesn’t mean either senator will have anything close to an easy race, though.
Three numbers illuminate their challenge and the early GOP strategy against the incumbents. In 2011, Pryor and Landrieu both voted 95 percent of the time with the president in votes where Obama clearly indicated his preference. Last November, only 36.9 percent of voters in Arkansas and 40.6 percent in Louisiana cast their ballots for the president.
Pryor, who didn’t have a challenger in 2008, has a steeper hill to climb, numerically. Republicans looking toward 2014 noticed and are likely to have a simple message against him.
“It frames up this way: If you like President Obama, if you want someone who will be there for President Obama, if you want someone who will vote nine times out of 10 with president, then you want Mark Pryor,” one plugged-in Arkansas Republican explained. “If you want a conservative, you’ll vote for the other guy.”
Democrats, however, believe that GOP attacks connecting Pryor and Obama will fall flat because Arkansans already know Pryor is his own man.
“They’re going to try to paint Mark as an Obama Democrat, but people here know him well enough, they know his dad well enough, they’ve known his family for 40 years in office,” Arkansas Democratic consultant Robert McLarty said. “I think he’ll be able to power through and push back against it.”
Arkansas Democrats expect Pryor to pursue a strategy of reminding voters of his deep state roots and highlighting instances where he’s worked to fix constituents’ problems through legislative means.
How difficult a slog Pryor has will largely depend on which Republican he faces. GOP Rep. Tim Griffin has said he’s not running, pushing speculation toward two other GOP congressmen: freshman Tom Cotton and sophomore Steve Womack.
Womack’s chief of staff, Beau Walker, said in an email that the congressman was focused on his job “and not yet thinking of anything beyond that.” Insiders aren’t sure whether Womack has genuine interest in giving up his safe House seat, and many expect him to forgo a Senate run.
That would leave Cotton, a military veteran who was just sworn into Congress.
“I know Tom Cotton is being heavily recruited now,” the plugged-in Arkansas Republican said. “He is reluctant because he just got to the House. But, at the end of the day, he has answered the call of duty before, and I think he’ll answer it again.”
Cotton’s chief of staff, Doug Coutts, said he had no comment on the Senate bid speculation.
There are some other non-politicians — including some who could partially fund a campaign — quietly eyeing the race, GOP insiders said.
In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy is seen as the likely GOP establishment choice to take on Landrieu. If he jumps in, he may well face a primary.
Landrieu, also likely to be framed by the GOP as being Obama’s best friend in Washington, will emphasize her record for Louisiana.
“That is truly what my election is going to be determined on — is my record of effectiveness on behalf of the people of Louisiana,” Landrieu told CQ Roll Call last month. “Frankly, I’d put my record up against anyone that has ever represented the state in the United States Senate.”
While it’s her record that appears poised to be the centerpiece of both her campaign and the campaign against her, having a brother serving as mayor of the state’s largest city won’t hurt. Strong turnout in Democratic New Orleans is an essential piece of a statewide Democratic victory in Louisiana.
National Republicans are expected to target both Landrieu and Pryor heavily, and the senators are certain to see their favorability tarnished by thousands of negative TV spots.
But unlike other vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election next year, such as Kay Hagan of North Carolina, both Landrieu and Pryor have a head start with positive brand names many years in the making. That matters.