What's Sen. Mark Pryor doing with Bible in new campaign ad?

Sen. Mark Pryor is an endangered species – an Arkansas Democrat in Congress. He calls the Bible his 'North Star' in a new campaign ad that downplays his Democratic allegiances.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas holds a Bible in this screenshot taken from his new campaign ad.

Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas has begun to explicitly invoke his Christian faith as a reason why state voters should reelect him in 2014. He’s talked about it in political gatherings back home, and on Wednesday his campaign unveiled an unusual ad in which Senator Pryor cites the Bible as the wellspring of his political values.

“This is my compass, my North Star,” says Pryor, holding his Holy Book as he looks straight into the camera. “It gives me comfort and guidance to do what’s best for Arkansas.”

Statewide candidates don’t often talk so directly about religion. Pryor is certainly a devout Christian, but he’s now brought this private matter into the public arena. Opponents will surely question his motives. Why has he gone in this direction with an election still 11 months away?

Our answer to this question has two parts. The first is that he’s in trouble and needs to start the intense part of his campaign with something big.

In 2008, Arkansas Republicans did not bother to field a challenger to Pryor and he ran essentially unopposed. But the political landscape is much different now, and in 2014 he’s perhaps the most endangered member of a small club: red state Democratic senators.

In the past, Arkansas has not been as solidly Republican as many other Southern and border states. But it’s getting there. Pryor’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, was swept away in 2010 and he’s now the lone member of his party in the Arkansas congressional delegation. In presidential politics, the state has never voted for Barack Obama. Sen. John McCain won 59 percent of the vote there in 2008. Mitt Romney took 61 percent in 2012.

Now Pryor is looking at a volatile electoral landscape in 2014. He voted with other senators of his party for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and given that law’s current unpopularity, his chances for a third term might not seem great. Oh, and he’s also facing a well-known GOP member of congress, Rep. Tom Cotton, who’s an Iraq and Afghanistan war vet.

“Bottom line: if the GOP can’t beat this [guy] ... in a conservative state with a Harvard Law grad turned decorated veteran as its nominee, it should disband,” writes Allahpundit on the right-leaning Hot Air website.

But the second part of our answer as to why Pryor is talking about his Bible is that he has a chance. He isn’t buried. He is an incumbent and son of a former three-term senator who remains personally well-regarded in the state, after all.

The national prognosticating Cook Political Report rates his race as “toss-up,” as does University of Virginia political scientist and handicapper Larry Sabato.

Given that, the manner in which Pryor talks about religion is interesting. He’s invoking it as a higher power that essentially trumps partisan loyalty. In that context, he’s saying, how much does the “D” next to his name really matter?

“The Bible teaches us that no one has all the answers, only God does, and neither political party is always right,” he says in his new “North Star” spot.

And Pryor’s votes kind of back this up, in the sense that he’s much more moderate than most chamber Democrats. The National Journal Vote Ratings, which consider all ballots a lawmaker cast in a year, put him at 50.7 for 2012. That means he stood in almost the exact partisan middle of the Senate. That year, only one Democrat, the now-retired Ben Nelson of Nebraska, had a ranking to his right.

His ratings for other years are similar. “Pryor has kept his early promise to maintain a moderate voting record,” wrote Cook Political Report in September.

Will Arkansas voters care that Pryor is professing allegiance to a higher power than the Democratic National Committee? The national political landscape of November 2014, yet unknown, may be what tips this race in the end.

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