LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wants to lead the charge for change in the Senate. But Arkansas voters might not be so quick to follow.
The House freshman and Army veteran is sprinting across the state to convince voters to throw out Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — ending a family political dynasty that began before Cotton was even born — and elect him the Senate’s youngest member.
Winning the state is critical to Republican hopes of taking back the Senate. If Pryor keeps defying the odds though, Democrats could be breathing a lot easier on Election Day.
Sticking to the GOP game plan, Cotton hammered Pryor time and again as a yes man for President Obama to cheers from loyal crowds of Republicans on Saturday, racing from Malvern and Hot Springs in the state’s center to Mountain Home, a small town deep in the Ozark Mountains along the Missouri border.
“I can’t find anyone who agrees with Barack Obama 95 percent of the time. Except, unfortunately, our United States senator, Mark Pryor,” Cotton said to laughs from the few dozen Republican candidates and activists in Malvern.
But while Arkansas voters deeply dislike the president, they know Pryor well. He’s held the seat for 12 years, and his father, David Pryor, was a governor then senator from 1974 through 1996.
And despite millions in ads from Cotton and outside groups attacking Pryor, his poll numbers have held up.
The farm bill problem
Part of that might be due to Cotton’s own voting record.
“Explain your farm bill vote. We keep getting questions about that,” Susan Childs, a Garland County Republican Party official, asked Cotton in Hot Springs during a swing by the local GOP victory headquarters.
Cotton, the only one of Arkansas’s five GOP legislators to vote against it, replied that Democrats had called it a farm bill to “mislead the voters” and should have called it the “food stamp bill.”
She told The Hill afterward that she knew why Cotton voted against it but asked because it was clearly becoming an issue with GOP voters.
Cotton’s aunt, Lois Ann Bryant, was in Cotton’s Little Rock office stuffing mail pieces into envelopes, when he swung by there to thank volunteers. She brought up the farm bill unprompted when asked how the race was going.
“We live in a farming community, so they’re very attuned to farming issues. And I think there were concerns about the farm bill. I don’t think they really understood maybe as much about why he voted the way he did,” she told The Hill.
Cotton admitted his vote was coming up “from time to time.”
“A lot of people, like me, grew up on a farm, even if they don’t live on it, even if they’ve moved to Little Rock or moved to Rogers. Farm roots run deep in Arkansas,” he said. “Most people, when they learn the farm bill is really a food stamp bill and that a lot of the farming community like livestock producers opposed it, they realize that that’s how we got to $18 trillion in debt and that I cast the right vote, even if it might have been the politically tough vote.”
A young man in a hurry
At just 36, the freshman legislator is a man on the march. He delivers speeches in rapid-fire bursts that belie his twang. The marathon runner was only half joking when he mentioned a “short morning run, about 5 or 6 miles” in his Mountain Home speech.
Even his recent courtship was a whirlwind. Cotton first met his new wife Anna, a Washington lawyer, shortly after he was sworn into Congress last year.
“When you’re 36, it’s not that quick,” Cotton told The Hill with a laugh.
That intensity, and Cotton’s sometimes stern military bearing, comes through.
“He was very serious, always serious and businesslike, even as a young [kid],” his aunt said.
GOP officials privately say Cotton sometimes can come off as angry or stern on the stump. At the Little Rock stop, he lectured a dozen college-aged GOP volunteers about hard work, eschewing the rousing campaign speech most politicians would deliver.
Cotton seems cognizant that he needs to soften his image. He made a point to mention his new wife throughout the weekend, joking about “42 days of marital bliss” at multiple stops. His new ad, a light spot featuring his former drill sergeant yelling at him, looks to do the same.
Not your Father’s Arkansas
But despite Cotton’s problems, Pryor faces a tough climate. Once a solidly Democratic state, Arkansas has followed the path of other Southern states. In 2012, President Obama lost it by 24 points.
When Pryor ran in 2008, the GOP didn’t even field a candidate against him. Now, he’s the only Democrat left in the congressional delegation. At every stop Cotton hit, Republicans were celebrating historic gains in local and state offices, and were bullish about their chances in the Senate race and for the governorship.
“People don’t talk like they used to. So many people have switched parties,” worried Ed House, a Jackson County Democratic official who came out to share a lunch of fried catfish with Pryor and other local Democrats, after Pryor toured Arkansas State University’s Newport campus.
But Pryor disagrees that the state’s shifted from its roots.
“The environment in Arkansas I wouldn’t say is all that different than it’s ever been. This has been a stubbornly independent state for my whole life,” he told The Hill.
The senator constantly touts his centrism on the stump, seeking out less ideological audiences and rarely mentioning his party.
“Ever since I’ve been up there, I’ve tried to work in a very bipartisan way. In fact, some of my colleagues, they call me Mr. Bipartisanship,” he said at a Friday morning speech to an optometrists group in Little Rock.
He even invoked the Bible to knock the “my way or the highway” approach he said many in both parties followed.
“I’m in the Isaiah camp: ‘Come, let us reason together.’ Let’s sit down, let’s work through this, let’s try to work things out,” he said.
Afterward, a constituent came up to Pryor to complain about President Obama, ObamaCare and the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. While the constituent was fiercely critical of the president he nodded intently when Pryor blamed “partisan gridlock” for forcing Obama’s hand on some recent executive orders. The man, who said he was a veteran, agreed with Pryor when said he’d long fought for a strong military, shaking his hand as he left.
The soft-spoken Pryor rarely lights up a room. Supporters admit his speeches can drag on, and he lacks the back-slapping gene some Arkansas politicians, like former President Bill Clinton, have in spades. But he’ll hang around talking policy and making small talk with voters until they’ve run out of questions to ask. At every stop, his campaign staff had to drag him away before he was too late for his next appearance.
When Pryor attacks Cotton, it’s to paint him as an extremist. In Newport, where his own grandfather and great grandfather were sheriffs, he knocked Cotton for voting against the farm bill, calling it a “a symbol of the differences between my opponent and me.”
Even with his famous surname, Pryor rarely mentions his father on the stump. But it’s clear he sees a benefit in keeping the connection — his campaign logo is the same as his father’s once was.
Nancy Lewis, a semi-retired senior citizen working the front desk at Arkansas State University’s Newport campus, was excited to see Pryor. A political independent, she wrinkled her nose and said “Well, it wasn’t Obama,” when asked who’d she backed for president.
But nonetheless, she plans to vote for the incumbent.
“He’s just an extension off his daddy,” she said, beaming as she discussed Pryor. “His dad was wonderful, and I think he’s wonderful too.”
This is the first part in The Hill’s weekly series Road to the Senate.