Long slog to 2014 election begins for Senate's 'red state' Democrats

Three Senate Democrats from states where Obama lost in 2012 – and who are up for reelection themselves in 2014 – voted this week against their own party's fix for the 'sequester.' Will such votes hamstring Obama's legislative agenda?

Alex Brandon/AP
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., speaks during a hearing in Washington in 2011. Twenty months away from next year's election, a national conservative group recently launched the first 2014 campaign attack against Pryor with a television ad that derides the Arkansas lawmaker as President Barack Obama's "best ally" in the state.

The agony of the 2014 election cycle has already begun for incumbent Democrats from "red" states.

That became apparent Thursday, when three Democratic senators from conservative-leaning states – Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana – rejected their own party's fix for the budget-crimping “sequester.” It included $55 billion in tax hikes on the rich alongside cuts to farm subsidies and the Pentagon.

Earlier in the week, two powerful conservative groups had pegged Senator Pryor as a top 2014 election target. 

That vote was only for political show, and thus not one that could make or break President Obama's agenda. But it nonetheless signals an uncomfortable reality for red-state Democrats: Votes on the president's agenda for the current congressional session – immigration reform, higher taxes for the wealthy, firearms legislation – could put them into a difficult spot with constituents back home, a majority of whom cast their ballots for someone other than Mr. Obama last November. 

The GOP's Mitt Romney carried seven states where Senate Democrats will be up for reelection come 2014. Democrats are going to need to protect many of those to keep their Senate majority.

Last year, that need to protect red-state Democrats from taking unpopular votes is believed to be a key reason the party's Senate leaders bottled up a budget resolution, allowing them to avoid taking a stand on federal spending priorities. 

Ready to excoriate these mostly conservative Democrats are groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, the advocacy group founded by former senator and tea party firebrand Jim DeMint of South Carolina. It made Pryor its No. 1 target in 2014, according to an e-mail sent to its supporters earlier this week. "Mark Pryor pretends to be a moderate in Arkansas, but votes like a liberal in Washington,” SCF executive director Matt Hoskins wrote in the e-mail.

Another conservative group, the fiscally concerned Club for Growth, has put hundreds of thousands of dollars behind a television ad ripping Pryor for backing Obama-driven legislation such as the 2009 federal stimulus and the health-care reform law, as well as one issue from President Bush's tenure, rescues for Wall Street banks sinking in the financial crisis.

“He’s supposed to be our senator, but Mark Pryor is really Barack Obama’s best ally in Arkansas,” the narrator intones mournfully. “When you vote for Pryor, you vote for Obama. It’s that simple.”

To fight back, Pryor and other such senators will do what moderates always do: stress their independence.

“These bills were one-party solutions that would do nothing to solve our fiscal problems,” Pryor said in a statement on his "no" votes to replace the sequester. “It’s time to make smart, deliberate cuts based on the merit and effectiveness of programs, and work to find common ground.”

Pryor’s voting record puts him smack-dab in the middle of the ideological spectrum. In 2012, only two Democrats' records were more conservative, and Pryor's votes were within distance of moderate Republicans such as ex-Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.  

“Anyone in Arkansas who knows me knows I always put Arkansas first – not the President, a political party, and certainly not special interests,” Pryor said in a statement after the release of the Club for Growth ad. “This is the first of what’s certain to be an endless array of special interest groups coming to Arkansas to distort the truth about my independence and bipartisanship.”

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