For a sign of the challenges Southern Democrats will face on the ballot next year, look no further than Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, who went up with his first campaign ad today. The spot blasts President Obama for his gun control legislation and takes aim at New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been airing ads in the state criticizing Pryor for his vote against the Toomey-Manchin bill.
"The mayor of New York City is running ads against me because I opposed President Obama's gun control legislation," Pryor said in the ad. "Nothing in the Obama plan would have prevented tragedies like Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, or even Jonesboro."
Pryor concludes: "I approve this this message because no one from New York or Washington tells me what to do; I listen to Arkansas." The closing line is a time-tested formula for Southern Democratic survival – showcase your independence from an unpopular national party. Indeed, some Democratic operatives believe that Bloomberg's high-profile opposition to Pryor gives him a useful foil to run against throughout the campaign and prove his moderate bona fides.
Last week, Bloomberg's group went up with a hard-hitting ad featuring an African-American woman lamenting Pryor's opposition to the Toomey-Manchin background check bill. "On that vote, he let us down," she said. The group spent $350,000 to air the spot – an unusually large sum this early in the race – which threatens to dampen black enthusiasm for his candidacy. The formula for Democratic success in deep Southern states is to win enough crossover conservative-leaning voters, while also turning out the African-American base. Bloomberg's activism in Arkansas threatens to hurt his ability to do the latter.
The early activity showcases how vulnerable Pryor is, facing friendly fire from would-be allies and regular criticism from Republicans. Pryor needs to showcase his independence in a state where Obama won just 37 percent of the vote last year. He's the first Democratic senator to air a campaign ad this year – more than 17 months away from the November 2014 election. He is still waiting for a GOP challenger to emerge, but Republican sources are optimistic that freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, an Iraq war veteran, will jump in the race later in the year.