If there’s one thing both parties can agree on, it’s that Sen. Mark Pryor is the most vulnerable incumbent facing re-election next year.
Enough stars have lined up against the two-term Arkansas Democrat to make him — at least at this point — the top target of national Republicans. No other senator seeking re-election in 2014 faces quite the same level of inherent challenges Pryor does.
But if Democrats are successful, the race for the party’s last remaining seat in the delegation will be won with a combination of highlighting Pryor’s record as a match for the state and defining the GOP’s likely nominee, Rep. Tom Cotton, as a “reckless and irresponsible” alternative.
“Congressman Cotton voted against the interests of seniors, students, families and farmers,” Pryor campaign manager Jeff Weaver said. “Mark Pryor has continually worked across the aisle to work with both parties, cut spending and put Arkansas first.”
This is one of the few races in the country where the likely Republican nominee garners approval from both wings of the GOP and faces no primary competition. With a résumé that includes military service and two Harvard degrees, Republicans believe they have the right candidate in Cotton.
However, with Pryor’s Republican opponent in place, Democrats believe they can benefit by kicking off the contrasts now. National Democrats and the Pryor campaign, which is led by veteran Democratic Senate strategist Paul Johnson, are optimistic they can define Cotton. They argue that because the freshman congressman is not nearly as well-known statewide as Pryor, they can be more persuasive than Republicans’ attempts to redefine Pryor.
“Everyone was so worried about Mark several months back,” Arkansas Democratic consultant Greg Hale said. “The talk around here was, let him get an opponent so people can actually have something to compare and contrast. He’s been polling much better the last two months since Tom got in the race because they’ve got something to compare him against.”
Justin Brasell, a veteran Republican strategist serving as Cotton’s campaign manager, called it “a sad state of affairs” that Democrats have to slam Cotton’s reputation to win rather than run on Pryor’s record.
“I think Mark Pryor’s making it easy for us,” Brasell said. “He’s basically coming out and saying he’s going to run a character assassination campaign because he’s not done anything in Washington in 11 years to be able to run on. There’s nothing positive for him to point to.”
The case for Pryor’s vulnerability is simple. The two-term incumbent faced no major-party opposition in 2008, and now he’s running in a conservative-trending state that lacks the minority-voter coalitions that have boosted Democrats elsewhere in recent election cycles. Obama lost Arkansas last year by 23 points — a greater margin than in 2008.
Then there’s also the state’s recent political history. After holding five of the six seats in Arkansas’ congressional delegation heading into the 2010 elections, Democrats now only have Pryor. His former Senate colleague, Democrat Blanche Lincoln, was blown out in 2010 by 21 points by Republican John Boozman.
Republicans are already tying Pryor to some of the same votes Lincoln was targeted on three years earlier — namely Obama’s health care law, which Republicans believe will only become less popular in the months ahead.
While Democratic operatives concede that the son of a former governor and senator is in for his toughest race yet, all the polling publicly available indicates it could remain tight for the next year.
Polling in the low- to mid-40s isn’t ideal for Pryor — it’s downright terrible, Brasell said — but Democratic operatives note it’s a far better place than where Lincoln started four years ago. About a year before the election, polls showed Lincoln down by 20 points.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican consultant who ran Boozman’s 2010 campaign, said Cotton is the strongest challenger Republicans could put up against Pryor, but no one should be counting the incumbent out at this point.
That’s thanks in part to his father, David Pryor, who served in the Senate until 1997.
“Arkansas is still a state that loves the Pryor family, and although some of the polling numbers might not reflect that, you’re going to see his dad and some of the old guard that the state respects come out in large numbers and campaign aggressively for Pryor,” Sanders said. “I think that will have an impact that you can’t really measure in polls.”
In a state in which Obama took only 37 percent of the vote, it begs the question of where Pryor’s votes will come from. Until three years ago, three of the four House districts were held by Democrats even as President George W. Bush won the state twice. So there are populations of swing voters to reach across the state.
That includes the bedroom communities of Pulaski County around Little Rock in the 2nd District, which could have a competitive open-seat House race. All of the counties Obama won were in central Arkansas or on the eastern edge of the state, in the 1st District.
Swing voters in Cotton’s 4th District, which encompasses most of the southern and western regions of the state, could also be in play, even though Cotton’s margin closely mirrored the statewide vote. Much of that area was represented for 12 years by Democrat Mike Ross, who retired last year and is running for governor in 2014. Some Arkansas Democrats believe sharing the ballot with Ross could give Pryor a major boost there.
“They’re going to turn out the vote from south Arkansas like never before,” one state Democratic consultant said, “and that will help Pryor a lot.”