Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton's campaign kicked off the final sprint to November with advertising designed to soften the image of one of the GOP's most-touted Senate recruits.
The freshman congressman, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, boasts multiple Harvard degrees, military service and broad support across the GOP spectrum. His political advantages also include a state trending Republican and a midterm cycle featuring a second-term Democratic president with a 31 percent approval rating in Arkansas, according to a recent NBC News/Marist poll.
But Cotton is running against a two-term senator with a respected brand name, which has given Pryor an advantage some of his fellow red-state Democratic colleagues don’t share. Cotton, who was a first-time candidate in 2012 and has represented just a quarter of the state for less than two years, had the added challenge of boosting his relatively low name ID while refining his skills on the stump. To combat this disadvantage, Cotton's campaign has unveiled a slew of ads tying Pryor to Obama and hitting the incumbent on issues including illegal immigration and Social Security. At the same time, it ran a series of positive ads featuring family members and even his Army drill sergeant.
Senate Republicans think the congressman is finally pulling ahead, though Democrats say this is a tied race.
“We’re starting to see a separation — polling is starting to get better for Cotton," Sen. Rob Portman, vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a brief interview last week. "The demographics of the state are becoming more Republican. He’s doing well.”
More than a year into the race, Cotton released two ads in the weeks surrounding Labor Day — the unofficial starting point of general election season — that continued to introduce the candidate statewide and offer a glimpse of his personal life.
One showed the congressman unloading groceries with his mother while reinforcing his support for Social Security, part of a trio of ads released simultaneously on that issue (the other two were negative spots). The other was a pure biographical spot highlighting his combat experience in the Army.
"Congressman Cotton is doing well and moving ahead in the polls, so it allows him to focus on positive messaging,” said GOP consultant Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an Arkansas native. "As he continues to pull away, he can make his campaign about what he will do and who he is, unlike Sen. Pryor whose campaign focus is almost entirely negative."
Cotton also announced on a local radio show Sept. 5 that he will vote in favor of a ballot initiative that would gradually increase the state's minimum wage over the next few years to $8.50 an hour — something Pryor has publicly supported for months. The move could potentially both ingratiate him with voters on an issue likely to garner wide support and take away a wedge issue for Pryor.
Pryor, whose campaign was criticized for a recent ad depicting Cotton as an opponent of the country’s preparedness for the Ebola virus, unleashed a pair of ads last week — a positive spot focused on bringing jobs back to Arkansas, along with a negative ad tying Cotton to the Koch brothers and a closed plant in Fordyce, Ark.
The contrast spot is part of a theme Pryor and his Democratic allies have followed throughout the race — that Arkansans don't know and shouldn't trust Cotton.
"There are five Republicans in the Arkansas delegation — Tom Cotton is the only Republican to vote against the farm bill," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil said in an interview last week. "That’s a compelling case to make to voters and a lot of the reason why — despite some perceptions of the race — it’s remained relatively close for the past year."
The race is rated Tilts Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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