Farm Bill Vote Provides Wedge Issue for Pryor

Pryor is a top target of the GOP in 2014. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., intends to make the farm bill a driving issue in his competitive re-election race against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.  

Minutes after the conference report passed the House 251-166 on Wednesday morning, Pryor called Cotton's vote against the five-year reauthorization of the nation’s agriculture and nutrition programs "reckless and irresponsible." Pryor noted that Cotton was the only member of the state's all-Republican House delegation to oppose the legislation.  

Pryor is a top target of national Republicans in 2014 and battling his own ties to an unpopular president. But his campaign is highlighting this vote as evidence that Cotton would be an unpalatable alternative. In a statement, Pryor said his rival is siding "with his special interest allies, the same Washington groups spending millions on his campaign that urged him to oppose the farm bill." He accused Cotton of putting "his own ambitions ahead of what's best for Arkansans."  

Agriculture is a crucial component of the economy in Arkansas, which was ninth on the list of states receiving the most federal subsidies from 1995 to 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group . Pryor noted the importance of the bill's passage earlier this month when the two candidates spoke to hundreds of voters at a raccoon supper in southeastern Arkansas.  

Cotton was one of 63 House Republicans to oppose the hard-forged farm bill compromise , which was supported by his party's leadership. In a statement from his official office , Cotton called it a "food-stamp bill," noted that only half a percent of the overall cost went to Arkansas, and said the bill "imposes unfair regulations on livestock producers."  

In response to Pryor, Cotton campaign manager Justin Brasell called the senator "a lifelong politician" and said Pryor opposed critical changes to the food stamp program.  

"Tom Cotton has listened to the concerns about this bill from cattle, pork, and poultry producers for the past eight months, and he will continue to fight for Arkansas farmers and taxpayers," Brasell said.  

The farm bill is unlikely to be a wedge issue in Louisiana, host to the only other Senate race featuring two members of Congress from opposite parties. GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy supported it on Wednesday, and Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu is likely to back it as well when the Senate holds a vote. The measure is expected to pass that chamber in the coming days.  

The farm bill is not the only piece of legislation expected to be at the forefront of the Arkansas Senate race, which is essentially a must-win for Republicans to have any chance of adding a net of six seats needed for the majority. The race is rated Tossup/Tilt Republican by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.  

Cotton released a video statement shortly after Tuesday's State of the Union address reminding voters Pryor voted for the president's health care law and noting the Democrat's defeat would put the GOP on a path to reclaiming Senate control: "Defeating Sen. Pryor is a crucial step toward firing Harry Reid and stopping the president's agenda that is hurting our economy and preventing job growth."  

President Barack Obama's approval rating in Arkansas is among his lowest of any state in the country. Pryor easily won re-election in 2008, when Obama was first elected president — Republicans didn't even field a challenger.  

Now, beyond painting Cotton as an unacceptable alternative, Pryor must prove to voters in the GOP-trending state that he's an independent voice for the Natural State. He has highlighted his differences with the president on several occasions, and made that clear in his own statement  Tuesday night: "I’ve always said that I’ll work with the President when I think he’s right, but oppose him when I think he’s wrong. That’s why I’ve opposed his policies on gun control , the Keystone Pipeline, military action in Syria, regulatory overreach on our farms — to name a few — and why I’ll continue to oppose his agenda when it’s bad for Arkansas and our country."