Posted 8/11/2013 03:34 pm
Updated 7 months ago
LITTLE ROCK - A two-term moderate Democrat in Arkansas faces an uphill re-election fight, battling an anti-Obama tide in a race that's turned into a key battleground for control of the U.S. Senate.
The story sounds familiar, but the comparison may not go much further than that. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor is no Blanche Lincoln, and the 2014 election isn't 2010.
That's good and bad news for Pryor, who's trying to avoid the same fate as his fellow Democrat at the polls next year.
Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton's announcement last week that he's trying to unseat Pryor next year sets up what will be a costly and bruising campaign that could decide which party hold the majority of Senate seats. It also leads to the inevitable parallels between Pryor and Lincoln, the Democratic senator who lost her bid for a third term in a similarly expensive and nationalized race.
Pryor and Lincoln have plenty in common. Both are Democrats who managed to appeal to voters by finding a middle ground on some of the thorniest issues in Washington, but both faced challenges in trying to portray themselves as moderates in a state that's trending rightward.
Republicans hope to chip away at that image for Pryor the same way they did with Lincoln: by attaching the two-term lawmaker to an unpopular president and his signature federal health care law. Cotton made that clear in a speech where he referenced the president and the health overhaul more than the incumbent he's trying to topple.
"Do you agree with Barack Obama 90 percent of the time? If so, Mark Pryor is your man," Cotton told a crowd of supporters in his hometown. "If not, stand with me in this election and I'll stand with Arkansas in the United States Senate."
If Cotton succeeds, it'll mark the third election in a row where Republicans have made gains in Arkansas by focusing on Obama - who remains deeply unpopular in a state that he hasn't visited during his presidency.
It's a strategy that Pryor says he's prepared for, even questioning how Cotton would govern since Obama would leave office a third of the way into the six-year Senate term.
"I hope Arkansas doesn't want to waste one of their two Senate seats," Pryor said days before Cotton made his bid official. "You only get two, and I hope Arkansas doesn't waste one of its Senate seats just to send someone to Washington to oppose a president for two years."
Pryor is tempering those comments by trying to keep Obama at arm's length - saying he doesn't think the president has done enough for rural states like Arkansas.
Unlike Lincoln in 2014, Pryor doesn't appear to face the possibility of a primary battle that will leave him wounded heading into the general election. Though he's faced criticism from gun control advocates for opposing expanded background checks, that hasn't translated into an appetite among activists in Arkansas to mount a challenge to Pryor's bid for the Democratic nomination.
Republicans, however, also appear to have cleared the field for Cotton. Unlike in 2010, when Republican Sen. John Boozman faced a crowded GOP primary in his successful effort to unseat Lincoln, Cotton appears unlikely to face a party fight for the nomination.
Instead, Pryor is threatened by a longterm campaign that national Republican groups are already investing in heavily as they GOP tries to take over the Senate. The groups include the Club for Growth, the conservative group that backed Cotton's congressional run and welcomed his Senate bid with a six-figure television ad buy portraying Pryor as too liberal for Arkansas.
Pryor says he isn't daunted by the race, comparing it to his successful 2002 effort unseat Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson and the 2008 campaign where the GOP identified him as a top target but was unable to field a challenger.
But Pryor faces a vastly different Arkansas politically than his first Senate bid 11 years ago. Republicans now control both chambers of the state Legislature, and Pryor is the lone Democrat in the state's Washington delegation.
Pryor seems determined to avoid falling into the same trap as Lincoln, who many observers said waited until it was too late in the campaign to buy air time to respond to attacks. He used his first ad to hit back against Mayors Against Illegal Guns for knocking his gun control votes, and his second ad attacked Cotton as he announced his own Senate bid.
He's also made it clear how much he's willing to fight for the seat, accusing Cotton of alienating Arkansans with his votes against an initial version of the Farm Bill, a student loan measure, the Violence Against Women Act and other measures since taking office.
"I don't know who he's voting for, but it's not the people of Arkansas," Pryor said shortly before Cotton announced his bid.
But with Cotton now in the race, he faces an opponent who's just as willing to go on the attack.
"If anyone has alienated the people of Arkansas, it's Mark Pryor," Cotton said.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)