By Jessica Taylor - 04/10/14 06:00 AM EDT
On paper, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) should be this cycle’s most endangered incumbent.
But rumors of his political death might have been premature.
Armed with a top recruit in freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, Republicans thought this was the year they would finally take down the centrist Democrat and complete the state’s Republican sweep that began in 2010.
Pryor, the son of a former governor and senator, is running for a third term in a state where President Obama took just 37 percent in 2012 and was even held to an embarrassing 58 percent against a perennial candidate in the Democratic primary.
ObamaCare remains even more unpopular than the president in Arkansas, putting more wind to the GOP sails.
It’s easy to draw comparisons to the last midterm cycle, when the state’s other Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was swept out of office in the GOP tidal wave, as Republicans also picked up two Arkansas House seats.
But Lincoln was never in as strong a position as Pryor. She faced a Democratic primary that bled her already thin campaign coffers. Essentially, her fate was sealed early on, before the national environment even worsened for Democrats. At this time in 2010, Lincoln was consistently down by at least double digits in most partisan and public polls. She never rebounded, losing to Republican John Boozman by 21 points.
Democrats have been arguing for months that they felt better about Pryor than even other vulnerable incumbents, privately noting they’ve never had a poll where he’s been down.
They’ve been quick to try to take the shine off Cotton, a 36-year-old, Harvard-educated Army veteran who is a freshman lawmaker.
Democrats are portraying him as overly ambitious, and have also honed in on his vote against the farm bill. Cotton is the only Republican in the state’s delegation who opposed the farm bill.
Two independent polls this week showed the Democratic tactics might be working, or at least stopping the bleeding.
On Thursday morning, a live-caller poll from Opinion Research Associates showed Pryor up 48 to 38 percent over Cotton — his largest lead yet.
A Talk Business Arkansas/Hendrix College nonpartisan poll showed Pryor leading Cotton, 46 to 43 percent. While that was within the survey’s margin of error, the Democratic senator actually saw an uptick from the 42 percent he had in October, even after a barrage of negative attacks.
Other numbers in that poll also give Democrats reason to smile. The new poll showed Pryor was 10 points ahead with women — a crucial demographic for Democrats and the reason the party has honed in on equal pay this week.
But Republicans had reason to be optimistic, too. The automated TB/Hendrix College poll likely skewed a bit too Democratic, and being under 50 percent is never a good sign for an incumbent with plenty of room for his challenger to grow. Plus, Cotton was leading independent voters by double-digits.
Still, in a midterm cycle that offers few rays of hope for Democrats, the Arkansas race is showing it’s far too soon to begin writing Pryor’s obituary.
“This race is not going to move that much, but it’s moving in the right direction,” said one national Democratic strategist.
This race was one of the earliest to engage. Neither Pryor nor Cotton have primary opponents, so the hits came early and often.
The Democrat was the first incumbent to go on the air with advertising way back in May, when he hit back at then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for criticizing his position on gun control.
So far, Cotton has had the help of more than $6 million in attack ads that have eviscerated Pryor. In comparison, Democratic outside groups have spent about $1.8 million hitting Cotton.
Democrats say they’re ready to build a field program essentially from scratch, and they hope the state’s competitive governor’s race will boost turnout in their favor, too.
And don’t be surprised to see former President Clinton, the state’s most famous politician, back in his home state early and often to boost Pryor and other Democrats up and down the ballot to mitigate his national party’s numbers.
Republicans argue that, as the race begins to coalesce, Cotton — and the state’s partisan tide — will overtake the incumbent. In such a red state, hits on Pryor’s vote for healthcare and ties to national Democrats will be especially salient for the GOP.
“This isn’t the same environment that Pryor ran in during 2002 and 2008. The ground has shifted beneath his feet,” said Cotton spokesman David Ray. “Voters are learning who Tom Cotton is, about his record of conservative leadership and his service to our country in the Army. As they learn more about him, they will gladly choose him to replace Sen. Pryor, who has simply been a rubber stamp for President Obama.”
If this race becomes more about the national environment, Pryor’s numbers are sure to quickly fall. But if the Democrat can keep the tide at bay and remind Arkansas whey they voted for him — and his father — in the first place, he might have a fighting shot yet.
“There is something happening here in Arkansas, and it’s nice that folks in D.C. are finally starting to see what we’ve been saying for months: Congressman Cotton is a fundamentally flawed candidate, and our case against him is already resonating with Arkansas voters,” said Pryor spokesman Erik Dorey. “This is going to be a hard-fought race, but we’re confident in our path to victory.”