Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor has been buying up fall airtime for a race critical to nearly every hypothetical Republican path to the Senate majority .
The two-term Democrat, who faces the fight of his political life against GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, has so far reserved several hundred thousand dollars worth of TV time for the closing six weeks of the race, according to a media-buying source. The Pryor campaign would not comment on its media strategy, but that’s just an opening salvo in a state already seeing a plethora of spending from outside groups and both campaigns.
Amid a vigorous on-air back-and-forth over tornado disaster relief and religion in the past week, the contours of Pryor’s path to re-election remain unchanged. The Arkansas Democrat is banking that voters’ familiarity with him — and their disbelief that Cotton is on their side — will outweigh the antipathy toward Washington and President Barack Obama.
"Mark’s been around a really long time and his family has been around a long time,” said Sheila Bronfman, a Democratic consultant in Arkansas and longtime ally of the Clintons. "People like him and they trust him. They trust where he comes from and how he was raised, and I just think that’s making a big difference here.”
As Cotton superglues Pryor to the president every chance he gets, the incumbent is highlighting his challenger’s House votes against the farm bill and Superstorm Sandy disaster relief. Those messages have carried through in nearly $3 million in media spending from the two campaigns so far in 2014 — $1.4 million by Cotton and $1.25 million by Pryor, according to multiple sources.
Both sides say they win in a race about the issues. The discrepancy is which issues will decide this race.
“I think the Cotton campaign thought they could take all this national money and come in here and run as a Republican in a red state and call it a day,” veteran Arkansas Democratic consultant Greg Hale said. “But people are being very cautious and they’re paying attention to the facts. ... Literally all Tom Cotton has is Obamacare, and I just don’t think it’s enough right now.”
Republican consultant Clint Reed's firm Impact Management released a robo-poll Wednesday showing Cotton ahead, 47 percent to 43 percent, with a slightly smaller margin than a recent Cotton campaign internal poll. Reed said the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act and a perceived general overreach by the federal government give Cotton a built-in advantage, and the challenger remains out front in an admittedly close race. The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates this race a Tilts Republican contest.
"If you look at where he’s performing among independents, I would suggest to you that Cotton is maintaining a relatively small lead as we move into the heart of the campaign,” Reed said.
Pryor is highlighting the roots he hopes will prove strong enough to withstand the current national headwinds blowing across a state trending Republican. Like several other Senate candidates this cycle — including Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La.; Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Democrat Michelle Nunn of Georgia — part of the two-term senator’s potential appeal beyond his party base stems from his revered family name.
With that in mind, the campaign this week dispatched David Pryor — a former Arkansas governor, senator and congressman — to the trail as perhaps its most vital surrogate. Republicans concede he is an asset for his son.
In a phone interview from the second stop of a multi-week tour of the state, the elder Pryor told CQ Roll Call Arkansas is changing. But he emphasized that voters there have always been independent in nature, citing the 1968 elections as the most glaring example, when presidential candidate George Wallace, Sen. J. William Fulbright and Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller all won a plurality of the statewide vote.
Speaking from the Honeycomb restaurant in Arkadelphia, Pryor said he’d already run into some old friends and had given some brief stump speeches along the way.
“I try to draw the distinctions between Congressman Cotton’s record and Mark’s record, and their philosophical take on government and its role,” he said. “I’m trying to not be negative, but I’m trying to just show the differences to their two approaches to solving problems.”
From health care to energy and beyond, Republicans say Pryor’s alignment with the president on prescient matters gives Cotton a clear edge in the race.
“No surrogate can fix the fact that Pryor is out of position on the issues voters care about,” said Cotton media consultant Brad Todd.
Despite available polls showing a close race — or maybe because of them — Democrats, who haven’t released any internal polling recently, sound more upbeat about the incumbent’s prospects than ever. David Pryor said he feels better “with each passing day,” and Hale said the senator is hitting his stride.
One Democratic insider in the state boiled the race down to this: "Can a Democratic politician who excels in retail politics beat a Republican one in reddening Arkansas?”
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