The Arkansas Race Is Not Over Yet

In a year full of tough challenges for the Democrats, Tom Cotton may have opened up an opportunity.

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, left, shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, middle, as he arrives Monday, May 12, 2014, to tour the Welspun Tubular facility in Little Rock with Welspun President David Delie. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 15, 2014, 5:01 p.m.

Each elec­tion year has its own unique char­ac­ter­ist­ics. No two are alike, and this is one of the many things that make polit­ics so in­ter­est­ing. Ob­vi­ously, Sen­ate Demo­crats are fa­cing tough chal­lenges in 2014. They have more seats up — mean­ing more at risk — than Re­pub­lic­ans. Sev­en of those Demo­crat­ic seats are in states car­ried by Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 (six went for the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee by 14 points or more), and just a single Re­pub­lic­an seat up is in a state car­ried by Pres­id­ent Obama. When you add midterm turnout dy­nam­ics that in­creas­ingly work to be­ne­fit Re­pub­lic­ans, and a gen­er­ally nasty polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment for Demo­crats, the takeaway is: This is not a fun year to be Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Ben­net or Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Guy Cecil. Both men, and their staff mem­bers, do phe­nom­en­al jobs, but the deck is still stacked against them; they just have to make the best of an un­for­tu­nate situ­ation.

A sur­vey of the na­tion­al land­scape finds that open Demo­crat­ic seats in South Dakota and, to a less­er ex­tent, West Vir­gin­ia will be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the party to hold. The former will be pretty close to im­possible, and the lat­ter will be quite hard. Ap­poin­ted Sen. John Walsh faces an up­hill struggle in Montana as well, mean­ing that three Demo­crat­ic seats look highly likely to fall in­to Re­pub­lic­an hands be­fore the GOP has won a single truly com­pet­it­ive race. Then come six in­cum­bents fa­cing ex­tremely tough fights: Mark Be­gich (Alaska), Mark Pry­or (Arkan­sas), Mary Landrieu (Louisi­ana), Mark Ud­all (Col­or­ado), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hamp­shire), and Kay Hagan (North Car­o­lina). Then there is a very close con­test for an open seat in Michigan, and a some­what less en­dangered seat in Iowa. If the hur­ricane fa­cing Demo­crats is a Cat­egory 1, 2, or 3, this will be the ex­tent of Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic vul­ner­ab­il­ity. If it gets to a 4 or a 5, one should look at Mark Warner (Vir­gin­ia), Al Franken (Min­nesota), and Jeff Merkley (Ore­gon). One would be hard-pressed to find an elec­tion cycle that is as up-front ugly for either party as this one is for Demo­crats.

What is pretty un­usu­al about this year is that, as bad as it is for Sen­ate Demo­crats, none of the party’s nine elec­ted in­cum­bents fa­cing chal­len­ging races can be con­sidered dead or even a clear un­der­dog at this point. Over the years, in­cum­bents in both parties — in­clud­ing Con­rad Burns, R-Mont., Norm Cole­man, R-Minn., Eliza­beth Dole, R-N.C., Rus­sell Fein­gold, D-Wis., Blanche Lin­coln, D-Ark., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and John Sununu, R-N.H. — have faced truly up­hill reelec­tion chal­lenges, and lost. But oth­er in­cum­bents cer­tainly man­aged to pull a Laz­arus and rise from the dead, or un­der­go a polit­ic­al re­sur­rec­tion while the cam­paign was in pro­gress.

One of the most closely watched Sen­ate races of 2014 is in Arkan­sas, where both of my late par­ents were born and raised. I have tons of re­l­at­ives still in south Arkan­sas, vis­it Little Rock and north­w­est Arkan­sas at least once a year, and con­sider the Razor­back State my ex of­fi­cio home state, second only to my nat­ive Louisi­ana. A few months ago, the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in Wash­ing­ton, more so than in Arkan­sas, was that in­cum­bent Mark Pry­or was toast. Per­son­ally, I nev­er quite bought in­to the “toast” char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion, but I do re­mem­ber hav­ing a meta­phys­ic­al con­ver­sa­tion re­lated to this race, spe­cific­ally about when bread tech­nic­ally be­comes toast and what level of brown­ness or crunchi­ness con­sti­tutes toast. While I am not quite sure I buy com­pletely in­to the re­cent NBC News/Mar­ist Col­lege and New York Times/Kais­er Fam­ily Found­a­tion sur­veys show­ing Pry­or with leads of 11 points and 10 points, re­spect­ively, over Rep. Tom Cot­ton, those polls do but­tress the cred­ib­il­ity of those show­ing Pry­or now hold­ing low-to-middle single-di­git leads, and end the toast com­par­is­ons.

My hunch is that a lot of people got a little ahead of their skis in pro­noun­cing Pry­or dead, but I also sus­pect that Cot­ton’s Jan. 29 vote against the farm bill — he was one of 63 House Re­pub­lic­ans, mostly very con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers, who voted against it, while 162 Re­pub­lic­ans voted for it — had something to do with this. Among House Demo­crats, 89 voted for pas­sage of the farm bill, 103 — mostly pretty lib­er­al mem­bers from urb­an dis­tricts and un­happy over food-stamp cuts — voted against it. No Re­pub­lic­ans in Alabama, Iowa, Mis­sis­sippi, or Mis­souri voted against the bill, and some of those folks are pretty con­ser­vat­ive.

Al­though Cot­ton un­ques­tion­ably has deeply held con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples that per­suaded him to vote against the farm bill, it sure wasn’t polit­ic­ally ex­pedi­ent for the Sen­ate can­did­ate to vote in op­pos­i­tion. My hunch is that there is a lot of head-scratch­ing over that vote among farm­ers and folks in rur­al and small-town Arkan­sas. Giv­en the in­creas­ingly con­ser­vat­ive and ra­cially po­lar­ized vot­ing pat­terns in the Deep South, par­tic­u­larly in races like this one, Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates des­per­ately need to find op­por­tun­it­ies to drive a wedge between con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions taken by their op­pon­ents and what would strike most back home as not in a state’s best in­terest. It’s times like this when voters have that “Whis­key Tango Fox­trot” mo­ment, won­der­ing why a mem­ber of Con­gress from a largely rur­al state would take such a po­s­i­tion. This race is far from over, and Cot­ton still could win. But my guess is, his vote on the farm bill will be a cudgel that Pry­or will swing at him from now to Novem­ber, provid­ing an open­ing that the in­cum­bent needed and the chal­lenger could ill-af­ford to give. If Cot­ton doesn’t re­gret the vote already, he soon will.

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