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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.”