Mark Pryor, A Once-Safe Democrat, Tries to Survive

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Friday, Mar. 15, 2013 4:36 pm  

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., kicks off his re-election campaign Saturday with a fundraiser in Little Rock headlined by former President Bill Clinton, ramping up a race that's already under way with conservative groups on the attack. (Photo by Trent Ogle)

LITTLE ROCK - Twenty months from election day, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor has barely launched his bid for a third term and doesn't even have an announced Republican opponent. But Arkansas voters could be forgiven for thinking that 2014 is already here.

With full-page newspaper ads urging people to contact Pryor on gun control measures to television spots deriding him as President Barack Obama's closest ally in the state, the only Democratic member of Arkansas' congressional delegation has already become a top target for Republicans aiming to win control of the Senate next year.

Pryor kicks off his re-election campaign Saturday with a fundraiser in Little Rock headlined by former President Bill Clinton, ramping up a race that's already under way with conservative groups on the attack.

"They're forcing me to start earlier than I'd like to, but it's just the way it is in today's political environment," Pryor said. "You can't wait because the outside groups, the special interest groups, will spend a ton of money in the state and do everything in the world they can do to put someone else in office."

There are plenty of reasons for Pryor to worry. Democrats have steadily declined in Arkansas, hampered by Obama's unpopularity in the state and Republicans' consolidation of power across the South. In 2010, Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her bid for a third term. Last year Republicans swept all four of the state's U.S. House seats and won control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

The final trophy for Republicans in the state would be Pryor, a soft-spoken lawmaker with a well-known family name who has focused on consumer-friendly issues such as banning dangerous toys and on trying to craft compromises with Republicans.

They see him as vulnerable after Obama lost the state by 24 points in the November election. The Senate Conservative Fund, a political action committee, has called defeating Pryor its top priority next year out of 33 seats on the ballot and has launched a website for the effort. The conservative Club for Growth also weighed in this month.

"He's supposed to be our senator, but Mark Pryor is really Barack Obama's best ally in Arkansas," declared a television ad bought by the group.

The independent groups and Republicans are striving to distance Pryor from the goodwill he's enjoyed as a longtime lawmaker and the son of David Pryor - a former governor and U.S. senator. The younger Pryor, 50, a former state legislator and attorney general, was the only Democrat to unseat an incumbent Republican senator when he defeated Tim Hutchinson in the 2002 election.

"The name is a name that has been held in good stead, but now it has been linked with a name, Obama, that is not in Arkansas," state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said. "I think it has fallen out of favor with the average Arkansas voter."

Other groups targeting Pryor include the National Rifle Association, which has run a full page newspaper ad urging Pryor to oppose Obama's gun control proposals. Television ads also aired urging him to vote against Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

The frenzied attention is a far cry from Pryor's last re-election bid in 2008, when no Republicans even filed to challenge him.

"It's a little bit of a problem. He's not been on the ballot with a full-fledged campaign since 2002," said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College who has been active with the Democratic Party. "That's a lifetime ago."

Pryor may be in a stronger position than Lincoln was when she prepared for re-election. His approval rating has remained over 50 percent and, unlike Lincoln, he is not expected to face a primary challenge next spring.

So far, Republicans are also lacking a candidate to challenge Pryor. Webb said he's talked to three top-tier prospects, but declined to name them. Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a Republican, has said he's considering a run. Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton is also frequently mentioned as a potential challenger.

Like Lincoln, Pryor is trying to find middle ground in a state that has produced centrist Democratic luminaries like Clinton, former Sen. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor but that has made a dramatic shift rightward in just two election cycles.

On gun control, Pryor has opposed the assault weapons ban backed by the White House and has instead supported a measure intended to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. He's urged the White House to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and supported Obama's pick of Hagel for the Pentagon post.

When asked how he approaches the Obama White House, Pryor responded, "It's not always been an easy relationship."

Even Pryor's choice of Clinton, who remains popular in his home state of Arkansas, as the headliner for his re-election fundraiser is proving problematic. Republicans were quick to question Clinton's announcement that he now opposes a law he signed in 1996 that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Pryor said he disagrees and believes the Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional.

Pryor dismisses the idea that his race will be a test of the viability of Democrats in Arkansas or the South. Instead, he suggests that it will be a referendum on his type of bipartisanship.

"When there's some sort of bipartisan effort afoot, I'm usually at the top of the list for people to ask to get involved in it," said Pryor. "I think that's good for Arkansas. I think it's good for the country."

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