Senate elections 101: Arkansas considers ending its blue-state legacy

Arkansas was the last blue bastion in the South. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor's campaign rests on getting voters to think locally instead of nationally.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
Supporters of Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas wave to passing traffic in Fayetteville, Ark., before a televised debate with Republican opponent Rep. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville Oct. 14.

The Monitor's "Senate elections 101" series looks at the specific issues that will be driving voters in each of the 10 tossup races.

Ask almost any Arkansan and they will say one thing: They are ready for the midterm race between Democratic US Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton to end.

For more than a year, ads for the two by their own campaigns and outside interests have consumed all media. Campaign signs cover the state from Little Rock to rural farms and every point in between on interstate billboards and signs in the middle of nowhere. Some polls show incumbent Senator Pryor leading by one point. The University of Arkansas’ annual Arkansas Poll, released this week, showed Representative Cotton leading Pryor, 49 percent to 36 percent.

Pryor’s father was former US Sen. David Pryor, a beloved political star in Arkansas. His campaign has centered on his ties to Arkansas, including his family name, this year's farm bill (which Cotton voted against), and disaster aid. Agriculture is a $17 billion industry in the state, and Cotton was the only member of the Arkansas delegation to vote against the farm bill.

Pryor frequently targets Cotton's votes against legislation reauthorizing money for children’s hospitals, a superstorm Sandy disaster-relief package, and the Violence Against Women Act.

Cotton’s main focus has been on Pryor’s connection to President Obama and his vote for the Affordable Care Act – two very unpopular topics in Arkansas.

In numerous debates and televisions ads, Cotton, an Iraq War veteran, has repeatedly linked Pryor to Mr. Obama. The Obama factor may lead to Arkansas finally become solidly red next week; until recently, it had been the last blue holdout in the red South. it had been the last Southern state to do so. If that happens, Democrats could be shut out of power for at least a decade.

Former President Bill Clinton has campaigned heavily in Arkansas for Pryor as well as former Rep. Mike Ross who is running for governor. Polls show Ross’s Republican opponent Asa Hutchinson leading. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has visited the state for the Republican ticket.

“If Tom Cotton wins, it will show the continue trending of the state in the Republican direction as well as the successful linkage of Senator Pryor to President Obama,” Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., said. “The fact that the race has remained close is testament to a very strong campaign run by Pryor in a year where a blowout really should have occurred. If he wins, it will be because he localized the race just enough – focused on his family’s history and Tom Cotton’s votes that were contrary to the interests of the state – to pull it off.”

Outside groups have spent more than $34 million in the Senate race in Arkansas. But Arkansans still like retail politics, and both candidates have crisscrossed the small Southern state shaking hands and waving signs. Ultimately, voter turnout could decide this race. As of Wednesday, more than 234,000 had early voted. That may be key as weather forecasters are already calling for heavy rain on Election Day.

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