Senate Dem stumbles in Arkansas race
© Greg Nash

Sen. Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorTom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Medicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation MORE (D-Ark.) is struggling after a spate of recent missteps, and Democrats even privately admit he needs a near-perfect finish to survive.

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The Democratic incumbent has trailed Rep. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonTom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Schumer concerned by Army's use of TikTok, other Chinese social media platforms Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising MORE (R) in most public polling since midsummer and is now dealing with a pair of recent verbal stumbles.

In Tuesday’s debate he said the middle class extended up to families making $200,000 a year — nearly four times the median household income of the Natural State. Days earlier, he’d struggled to come up with a response when asked about the Obama administration’s handling of Ebola.

The money momentum is also on Cotton’s side. The GOP congressman hauled in $3.9 million from July through September, nearly double the $2.2 million Pryor brought in. Cotton also has three times as much money in the bank, $2.9 million to Pryor’s $1 million. 

Pryor, however, invested heavily in field operations and already bought most of his television ad time for the remainder of the campaign, making the cash disparity less of a problem. The two sides will roughly be at parity with their ads. But money tends to follow momentum, and Cotton’s bigger haul is a sign of which candidate the donor class feels has the upper hand.

With just three weeks to go, Pryor has trailed Cotton in all but one nonpartisan public poll dating back to the beginning of September. Democratic polling has the race in a dead heat, but the GOP's internal numbers give Cotton a lead consistently outside the margin of error. President Obama’s unfavorable rating has been in the low 30s in many polls, an albatross around Pryor’s neck.

The verbal stumbles privately have Democrats more worried. “The debates didn't help,” admitted one national Democratic strategist.

"I'd say probably up to $200,000, there's different definitions but that's my working definition," Pryor said when asked what his definition of a middle class family was.

Cotton jumped on the remark.

"Sen. Pryor must be the one who's hanging out with out-of-state billionaires if he thinks $200,000 in Arkansas is the middle class," he said, returning fire on Pryor's attacks about him fundraising with wealthy donors.

"When I think about a typical household in Arkansas it makes $40,000 a year. Unfortunately, that's down by almost 5 percent over the last six years because of the Obama-Pryor economy," Cotton continued.

The median household income in blue collar Arkansas was $40,531 between 2008 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Just two percent of Arkasas families make $200,000 or more a year. Pryor’s campaign points out that much of the recent debate over repealing tax cuts for the wealthy centers on families who make that much or more.

“I'll grant you that wasn't a great answer for Mark, that gave Tom Cotton a talking point,” one Arkansas Democratic strategist told The Hill.

Cotton has already worked Pryor’s remarks into his stump speech. On Thursday, he led a speech accepting the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement by bringing up the comment, mentioning it more than a half-dozen times in under four minutes. Cotton strategists promise it will be a major campaign theme going forward. 

“Just earlier this week, Sen. Pryor says he thinks a middle class family in Arkansas makes $200,000 a year. That goes to show how out of touch he is with Arkansas’ working families,” he said.

Pryor also struggled last week when asked about whether the Obama administration has handled the Ebola crisis well.

"I would say that it's hard to know because I haven't heard the latest briefing on that, to know all the details," Pryor told an MSNBC reporter after a five-second pause. "I read the paper and all. My impression is we have people over there both from the CDC and other medical-type people and even some engineers to try to build, you know, medical facilities. That's what they need over there."

"Again, I'd have to see the latest numbers," Pryor said when asked a follow-up.

Democrats argue that the race is still winnable, and point to recent voter registration numbers to argue their heavy investment in field operations in the state are paying off. More than 100,000 new voters have registered in the past year, the majority of them from counties near Democratic-leaning Little Rock and in the heavily black Delta region.

“This race is far from over. Mark Pryor is running a great campaign with a superior ground game with the resources he needs to win. Voters will reject Tom Cotton's ambition and extreme record with votes against the Farm Bill, student loans and the Violence Against Women Act,” said Justin Barasky, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman.

Party strategists are also confident a state ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage will drive Democratic turnout, and point out that former President Clinton has been all over the state. Clinton has been turning out crowds of thousands as he looks to help keep his home-state party alive. Strategists are also excited that the courts just struck down the state’s voter ID laws, making it easier for blacks and college students to vote.

But Republicans are confident the race is all but over.

“I feel really good about where we are,” said Rob Collins, National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director. “This race is getting pretty close to being a decided affair.”