The latest ad wars between Republicans and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., provide a preview of the driving forces in a key 2014 Senate race and demonstrate how the GOP can use the government shutdown against red-state Senate Democrats up for reelection.
Pryor's most likely Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, launched his first TV ad labeling the two-term senator "the deciding vote" on the Affordable Care Act. It is a familiar line to voters in Arkansas, where then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her 2010 reelection bid by more than 20 percentage points after being tagged as crucial to the legislation's passage. And Republicans are betting that putting Obamacare at the forefront of the midterm elections will help them topple a few vulnerable Democrats like Pryor.
"It absolutely has to be," said Keith Emis, a GOP consultant in the state, when asked if the health care law would be the top issue in the race. "It's the biggest issue facing the country. It's the biggest issue in people's personal lives." He argued that Obamacare is a "poison pill" for Arkansas Democrats.
Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the Affordable Care Act will be even more important in 2014 than in 2010, a wave year for Republicans nationally and in Arkansas. "This is going to be a referendum on how this has taken hold and taken shape," he said.
But Democrats are pushing back on the notion that the Affordable Care Act will be at the forefront of the election, with state Democrats and pundits bludgeoning Cotton's ad. Pryor's campaign responded with a TV ad of its own, calling Cotton "reckless," playing up his ties to Washington, and suggesting that he missed votes on the government shutdown to raise money for his campaign.
It is a familiar attack from the Pryor campaign against the freshman lawmaker. "It takes real arrogance for Congressman Cotton to assume that Arkansans will look past his reckless votes to kill the farm bill, cut Medicare and Social Security, and end affordable student loans, to name just a few," Pryor spokesman Erik Dorey said.
Democratic consultant Michael Cook said the ads are a sign of things to come in the election, and credited Pryor's campaign with not missing an opportunity to criticize Cotton's policies. "Right now conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama and Obamacare are unpopular in Arkansas, therefore the Senate race is over.... It's never that easy for Arkansas," he said.
Cotton's ad also appears to be the first to use government-shutdown votes against a Democrat, citing Pryor's vote to continue insurance subsidies for members of Congress and staffers. Dayspring said it is "one effective way" for Republicans running against one of a handful of red-state Democrats to tie the Affordable Care Act to the shutdown.
Justin Brasell, Cotton's campaign manager, said the ad is the first example of how Cotton will tie Pryor to Obama and his "radical agenda" throughout the campaign. And it will have help from outside groups, with the Club for Growth releasing a TV ad along that vein on Wednesday.
The round of ads — coming a little more than a year before the election — also underscore the shift in the Arkansas political climate since Pryor's 2008 reelection bid, during which the Republicans failed to put up a candidate. Although National Journal ranked him 51st on the liberal scorecard based on his 2012 votes, the question for the competitive midterm election is whether Pryor is too liberal for an increasingly red Arkansas.