Arkansas: Junior Senator|
Sen. Mark Pryor (D)
Last Updated September 15, 2003
Mark Pryor, the junior senator from Arkansas elected in 2002, is one of six children of former senators now serving in the Senate; the others are Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Robert Bennett of Utah, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (Jon Kyl of Arizona is the son of a congressman; Edward Kennedy's two brothers and Elizabeth Dole's husband were senators). His grandmother, Susie Newton Pryor, was the first woman in Arkansas to run for office when women got their vote. Mark Pryor grew up in southern Arkansas, the Washington area and Little Rock: His father, David Pryor, was elected to the House in 1966, lost a Senate race in 1972 and was elected governor in 1974 and 1976 and senator in 1978. Mark Pryor graduated from the University of Arkansas and its law school in the 1980s. He practiced law in Little Rock and was elected to the Arkansas House in 1990 and 1992; in 1998, he was elected state attorney general, at 35 the youngest attorney general in the nation (but not in Arkansas history: Bill Clinton won the office at 30). In 1995 he was diagnosed with clear-cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He underwent tendon transplant surgery in his left heel in 1996; the cancer has not returned.
As attorney general, he tried to curb telemarketing and worked for "Do Not Call" legislation. He claimed to save the state $243 million in attorneys' fees in the tobacco settlement. He pushed for legislation to increase penalties for single-incident nursing home accidents (regulating nursing homes was a big issue for young Congressman David Pryor in the 1960s) and to strengthen background checks for long-term care employees. He worked to reduce utility rates and to remove unsafe baby products from licensed day care centers. In July 2002, he filed a brief in the state Supreme Court defending Arkansas's school financing system as constitutional and urging the court to overturn a lower court ruling that some said would cost the state $800 million a year.
In July 2001, Pryor announced that he would run against Senator Tim Hutchinson--the first Republican to win an Arkansas Senate seat since 1879-- who was elected in 1996 to replace the retiring David Pryor. Hutchinson is a Baptist minister, owner of a radio station and founder of a Christian school in Rogers, in northwest Arkansas. He had had a successful career representing that conservative area, both in the legislature from 1984 and then as 3d District congressman, elected in 1992 and 1994. Hutchinson's conservative voting record would ordinarily have made him a favorite for reelection in a state that voted 51%-46% for George W. Bush. But in June 1999, Hutchinson filed for divorce from his wife of 29 years, and in August 2000, he married Randi Fredholm, a former member of his House staff. For some senators, this would not have hurt politically. But for a Christian conservative, who criticized Bill Clinton strongly during the impeachment crisis, it was a severe handicap.
Pryor never mentioned Hutchinson's divorce and remarriage and instructed his pollster not to ask questions about them. When asked about Hutchinson's marital problems, he said, "They are what they are. Let the voters decide." But one recurrent theme in his campaign was "Tim Hutchinson has changed"--even though Hutchinson's positions on issues had not changed much, if at all. "Pryor isn't dishonest, he's just sly," Will Saletan wrote in Slate. Of the two candidates, he wrote, "Pryor is the more natural aggressor." Pryor campaigned as a supporter of Second Amendment rights, repeal of the estate tax, increased military spending and, in October, of the Iraq war resolution. In 1998, he ran as a "pro-choice" candidate, but in 2002, he emphasized his belief that abortion was wrong except in cases of rape, incest or saving the life of the mother. But he avoided saying whether or not Roe v. Wade should be overturned. As National Journal put it, "He tempered his previous support for abortion rights, muddling the issue to the point where his stand is unclear; it appears that he supports abortion rights, but with limitations." He attacked Hutchinson for working for special interests, especially the pharmaceutical companies, and for supporting plans that would risk Social Security benefits; he said he was "way too conservative" for Arkansas. But he carefully avoided identification with the national Democratic party, and he made a point of being unavailable and elsewhere when Bill Clinton paid visits to the state.
Pryor's ads were some of the most artful of the 2002 cycle. One showed him, his wife and their two children saying grace before a meal. Then Pryor, holding a Bible, said "The most important lessons in life are in this book right here." The impression was apparently not misleading: The Pryors belong to an evangelical church in Little Rock and sent their children to a private Christian school. He turned down an invitation to appear with Hutchinson on Meet the Press, explaining that voters wouldn't be able to watch "because they're in church Sunday morning." In another ad, Jill Pryor says laughingly, "I love my husband, but he's cheap." "You know me as Arkansas Attorney General, but I'm also my father's son," said Pryor, in one ad showing him with his father. He explained that not every Democratic idea is good and not every Republican idea is bad. He asked a meeting of municipal leaders in June to pray for George W. Bush. "I think he has done a pretty good job on the war on terrorism. He has a tremendous burden, an inhuman burden."
Against these ads, the Hutchinson ads showing his walking the halls on Capitol Hill or even those showing him playing with his three-year-old grandson were no match. George W. Bush's visits to Arkansas to campaign for Hutchinson did not succeed, as they did in other southern states, in nationalizing the race. During the campaign Randi Hutchinson said, "I just think when a person goes into the voting booth, they look at issues that affect them and not someone else's personal life." But Pryor pulled ahead in polls in mid-year and never really fell behind. On the Sunday before the election, a story broke that the Pryors had employed an illegal immigrant. Pryor campaign aides found the woman that night; they persuaded her to sign an affidavit that she had been asked whether she was a legal immigrant and had said she was, and provided documents proving that. They went over to her house and photocopied a Social Security and regular resident card and provided them to the press. Two days after the election, the woman told Little Rock's El Latino that she had signed the affidavit under pressure and denied that she had provided documents to the Pryors when she was hired. The story seems to have had little effect, and the generally anti-Democratic Arkansas Democrat-Gazette treated it lightly. In any case, Pryor won 54%-46%, a solid victory in a year when Democrats lost their majority in the Senate. A survey by pollster John Zogby showed that 12% said Hutchinson's divorce affected their vote--enough by itself to explain his drop from 53% in 1996 to 46% in 2002. Hutchinson's losses were particularly great in his home area. In 1996, he had won 65%-35% in the current 3d Congressional District, with nearly a 61,000-vote majority, more than the 45,000 by which he carried the state. In 2002, he carried the 3d District by only 56%-44%, with a 24,000-vote majority (even though the off-year turnout in 2002 was nearly as high as the presidential year turnout in 1996), while losing the state by a 62,000-vote majority. Similarly, Hutchinson carried the Little Rock metro area by 9,000 in 1996 and lost it by 19,000 in 2002. Pryor won by making inroads in Hutchinson's base--or Hutchinson lost by squandering his home-base advantage.
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