Saturday, August 02, 2014

Race of the Day- Arkansas U.S. Senate

94 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

If Republicans hope to win control of the U.S. Senate this year, it will almost certainly require a victory in conservative and southern Arkansas. While the state used to be reliably Democrat, it has moved to the GOP considerably in recent years. Four years ago, in the last midterm of the Obama Presidency, a Republican Congressman unseated a Democrat incumbent Senator by a landslide margin. That example has led many to believe going into this year that two-termer Mark Pryor was the most vulnerable Senate incumbent in the country. That calculus has maybe changed a bit in regards to other states, but Pryor remains highly vulnerable. Still, it will be nowhere near as easy to knock him off as it was for his Democrat colleague to be defeated in 2010.

Pryor has a very famous name in Arkansas politics, as his father David served as the state's Governor and later in the U.S. Senate. After serving four years as Attorney General, Pryor was elected to the Senate in 2002, unseating Republican incumbent Tim Hutchinson. That was the only pickup for Senate Democrats that year and spoke to the influence the party still held in the state at that time. Hutchinson was also hampered by his personal life. A staunch religious conservative, Pryor got divorced from his longtime wife while in the Senate and quickly remarried a much younger woman who worked on his staff. That was a lot for culturally conservative voters to overlook as Pryor ran ads featuring his own wife and family. Now, as Pryor seeks a third Senate term, he has also gotten divorced.

Six years ago, Pryor was considered so entrenched in the state, that no Republican even stepped up to challenge him, and he basically won an uncontested reelection. After the 2010 defeat though of Blanche Lincoln in a Senate race, there would be no doubt that Arkansas Republicans would not give him a free ride. Still, some of the more established Republicans in the state passed on the race, leaving the mantle for a highly touted candidate who had just gotten elected to Congress in 2012.

Just 37 years ago, Tom Cotton has been talked about as someone to watch nationally from even before his fairly easy 2012 election to the U.S. House. After earning degrees from Harvard, Cotton enlisted in the Army and was highly decorated for combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan. After some time working in legal, business, and agriculture endeavors, Cotton won a Congressional seat that Democrats had almost exclusively held for as long as Arkansas has been a state, and some even began to describe him as perhaps being a future President. He also got married this past spring.

It must not have been an easy decision for Cotton to give up a seat in Congress that he probably could have held onto for many years to risk running against an incumbent Senator. A few months into his service in Washington, Cotton got into the race and a long general election campaign began. Both candidates have raised a lot of money, although the incumbent Democrat has an advantage in that regard. Super PACs have been running many ads in the state for months on both sides trying to influence the race. Arkansas has other close races this year, including one for Governor, but they are likely to continue to be bombarded with outside money in regards to the Senate contest for the remainder of the campaign.

The race certainly looks close now. As to be expected, Republicans believe that things will fall in their favor in a midterm election in a red state where Obama is unpopular. Pryor, like several other Democrat Senators, is certainly unlikely to invite the person in the Oval Office to campaign for him, and he is trying to point out differences he has with the Administration. Nonetheless, Pryor's votes for items such as Obamacare will be a a major focal point of the race. The Democrats will try to use the Republican controlled U.S. House, where Cotton is a freshman, against him as well.

Various horse race polls continue to be released. In what is perhaps not surprising, polls done by Democrat groups and causes have tended to show Pryor narrowly ahead while Republican firms have shown an advantage for Cotton.  The most recent non-partisan media polls have shown Cotton narrowly ahead. A few months back, the polls showed Pryor ahead, which had surprised some at the time. That means the race is either quite fluid or there has been a shift in momentum back to Cotton. The race is definitely far from decided, but if Cotton is ahead now as a challenger, he is in the better position to win.

As Election Day draws nearer, the debates between the candidates could play an important factor. Pryor may have to respond further to a politically controversial claim he made earlier this year when he said that Cotton's military service caused him to "give off a sense of entitlement" in regards to the Senate race. That was quite an unwise statement to be made by a politician who never served in the military who is also the son of a politician against a decorated war veteran. On the other side of the coin, just recently, an unnamed Cotton staffer was quoted as saying that the GOP candidate may have a hard time connecting with some folks in the state because he may be on a "different intellectual level." We can only assume the staffer meant that Cotton was smarter than them.

As impressive as Cotton's resume is, there is a sense that he come across as somewhat aloof and stiff on the campaign trail, while Pryor has a lot more political experience. Needless to say, Cotton will need to win this election if he truly is someone with national ambitions down the road.

If there is a "wave election", Pryor will almost certainly be swept out, as Blanche Lincoln was, but there are a lot of reasons why he is still in the race and why incumbents (especially those currently serving in a Senate majority) are so hard to defeat.

Pryor could very well escape with a victory, and if the state has not become so Republican, or if it were not a midterm election with the unpopularity of Obama and Senate Democrats lingering over everything, I would say that Pryor would at least be a slight favorite. It seems to me though that Cotton has a slight lead now and the undecided voters, who will show up in a midterm, are more likely to vote against the Democrat. This will be a good deal closer than the 2010 Arkansas Senate race, but I believe that it may not turn out to be a nail biter either. Incumbents do not lose a lot of Senate elections, but they have in recent Arkansas history, and Pryor will probably join that list.

Cotton campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 0 D, 3 R (1 Safe, 1 Leans, 1 Tossup)
Overall predicted thus far: 34 D, 33 R (net Republican gain of 2)