He asked for it. And anyone politically savvy enough to win two Senate elections must have decent reasons for doing something that seems so counterintuitive.
Mark Pryor is the only Democrat in the Arkansas congressional delegation and currently a clear-cut underdog to secure another term. That’s mainly because only about a third of the state’s voters approve of the job performance of President Barack Obama, even poorer numbers than his 2012 faring — the president lost Arkansas by 24 percentage points. In 2008, he lost to Sen. John McCain by a mere 20 points in the Natural State.
And yet it was at Pryor’s urging that Obama on Wednesday made his first trip to the state as president — a 150-minute foray that in reality was largely about midterm campaign politics, even though it was officially all about getting the first-responder-in-chief to put his own eyes on the South’s severe natural disasters.
“The federal government's going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt,” the president said after touring the tornado-ravaged suburb of Vilonia, 30 miles north of Little Rock. “I know you can count on your senator” and other local officials to deliver what will be required, Obama said, facing the cameras in shirt sleeves with a checkered-shirt-clad Pryor standing near his right shoulder.
Because of some unusual circumstances, the visit did not countermand the conventional wisdom that standing with the president is the most dangerous thing a vulnerable congressional Democrat could do between now and November.
Instead, the event provided Pryor with an extraordinary opportunity to burnish his own political brand. “Putting Arkansas first, regardless of political consequences, is his trademark,” the senator’s campaign website home page boasts. It’s a theme Pryor returns to most often when he’s explaining his reasons for opposing Obama or the majority of his fellow Senate Democrats, which he did as often as any other member of his party last year . But in this case, Pryor can say bringing the president to view the damage, and personally lobbying for the most generous possible federal response, was the most appropriate way to help his constituents — despite any risks to his own electoral fortunes.
Had the senator asked the White House to steer the president clear of the damage, Pryor would have subjected himself to charges of hypocrisy, that he was putting his own campaign optics ahead of what’s best for the state.
Beyond that, extending Wednesday’s invitation creates for Pryor a win-win situation. If between now and Nov. 4 the federal government is seen as having provided all the grants, loans and loan guarantees it could to the farmers and homeowners in the four counties around Little Rock, then Pryor can point to the president's trip (at his suggestion) as a reason why. But if the federal largesse is seen as lacking, he can say he did the best he could and thereby absolve himself of responsibility for those shortcomings — while blaming the unpopular Obama.
In these ways, Pryor’s move is somewhat analogous to the most famous “disaster politics” maneuver of recent times: Gov. Chris Christie inviting Obama to visit New Jersey just after Hurricane Sandy and just before the 2012 election. The governor concluded he could endure the lambasting from fellow Republicans, who accused him of helping the president to boost his own re-election to a second term, because at home he could boast that he’d put his state’s interests ahead of such partisanship.
The tornadoes have already provided Pryor with one political benefit. Staying behind to help coordinate initial recovery efforts allowed him to miss one of the most politically problematic votes of the year — on whether to raise the minimum wage. The issue is vitally important to the Democratic base but anathema to GOP business interests.
Since this year’s campaign has six months to go, there’s every reason to suspect the weather has not altered the Arkansas dynamic irreversibly. But the Pryor move had the effect of temporarily silencing Republican campaign rhetoric, with the senator's critics concluding they might otherwise stand accused of politicizing the tragedy. (Fifteen people died and hundreds of homes were destroyed by the series of twisters that swept through the state 10 days ago.)
Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, for now the favorite to defeat Pryor, remained at the Capitol Wednesday, but said he appreciated Obama’s interest in the state’s plight. The lawmaker whose district was the hardest hit is Rep. Tim Griffin. The Republican is leaving Congress to run for lieutenant governor , and chose to skip the day’s House votes on Lois Lerner contempt so he could stand with Pryor, outgoing Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and greet the arrival of Air Force One.
The group surveyed the path of destruction by helicopter before meeting with grieving families, local officials and emergency personnel.
Whatever the unexpected benefits, hosting the visit is likely to keep Pryor unique among the “red-state five,” the Senate Democrats running for re-election in places Mitt Romney carried.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., was a no-show when the president last visited North Carolina in January — fully four months before GOP primary voters on Tuesday nominated state House Speaker Thom Tillis from a roster of less viable opponents. Obama has been to Louisiana seven times as president, but not since Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s prospects veered into Tossup territory last fall. He’s showed no signs of making good on his promise last fall to visit Montana, where appointed Democratic Sen. John Walsh is in an uphill climb for election in his own right. And Democrat Mark Begich has warned the president to stay away from Alaska this year — unless he’s willing to stand beside the senator while his health and energy policies get shellacked.