GILLETT, Ark. — Sen. Mark Pryor, who shares the best-known political name in Arkansas aside from Clinton, is testing how far a Democrat can go in a state where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular and Republicans are on a winning streak.
Republicans are banking on first-term Rep. Tom Cotton to continue that streak, tying Pryor to Obama and “Obamacare” every chance they get.
But Pryor says he’s an Arkansan more than a “national Democrat.” His supporters hope his retail political skills can stop the GOP rise in this state, which came somewhat late to the Southern realignment game.
Cotton’s hopes ride on voters like Jammy Turner, 34, a salesman for Monsanto crop products. He was among the hundreds who attended the annual “Coon Supper” on Saturday in this town about 100 miles southeast of Little Rock.
“I think Pryor is a good advocate for Arkansas,” Turner said, but he will vote for Cotton. “I don’t think the Democratic Party, in general, makes decisions for the better good,” he said, citing personal freedom and self-reliance as examples.
If Republicans are to gain the six seats they need to take control of the Senate, they almost surely must win in Arkansas in November. Pushing back hard is Pryor, who has spent his life politicking in a state where many voters still want to know their candidates personally. Pryor’s popular father, David, long represented the state in the U.S. House and Senate, and also was governor.
At Saturday’s no-alcohol event –where etiquette requires participants to pretend to like a few bites of boiled-and-baked raccoon before switching to ribs — Pryor tried to make the best of his two political worlds.
He has attended Gillett’s annual suppers since the mid-1970s “with my dad,” Pryor, 51, told the crowd. He then introduced his three guests from Washington: Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who joined Pryor for a duck hunt Sunday.
When Cotton, 36, took his turn at the microphone, he said “my name is Tom Cotton,” and introduced his mother, Avis, who appears in his TV ads.
Arkansas politics are changing at a neck-snapping pace.
Six years ago, Republicans didn’t bother to challenge Pryor’s bid for a second term. Two years later, when his Democratic colleague Blanche Lincoln ran for a third term, she lost in a landslide to Republican John Boozman, now the state’s junior senator.
Obama lost the state to John McCain by 20 percentage points in 2008. He fared even worse against Mitt Romney in 2012. And after decades of dominance, Democrats lost control of the Legislature.
Boozman, who spent a decade in the U.S. House before moving to the Senate, says native son Bill Clinton postponed Arkansas’ partisan shift.
“It missed out on really going Republican during the Clinton years,” Boozman said. Now, he said, Obama’s unpopularity and the public’s intense dislike of the president’s health care law are feeding a GOP wave that threatens to end Pryor’s career.
Roby Brock, who hosts a business-and-politics TV show in Arkansas, said both parties are airing attack ads that boil down to “Pryor equals Obama, Cotton equals extremism.”
Obama “has been toxic for Arkansas Democrats,” Brock said. “There is a cultural disconnect,” he said, and unpopular policies such as the health insurance law “have been exploited expertly by Arkansas Republicans.”
Some see talk of a “cultural disconnect” between white rural voters and a black president as code for racial resentment.
Janine Parry, a political scientist and pollster at the University of Arkansas, says it’s simplistic to attribute Arkansas’ declining Democratic loyalty entirely to race. But race “is central” to the shifting election patterns, she said.
For Pryor to win, she said, “he’s got to convince people he’s a Pryor even more than he’s a Democrat.” Cotton wants to prevent that.
“Senator Pryor has been voting with President Obama more than 90 percent of the time,” Cotton told about 50 people who helped open his Little Rock campaign headquarters this weekend. He always mentions Pryor’s vote for the 2010 health care law.
Pryor says efforts to equate him with Obama won’t work. “People in Arkansas know that’s not true,” he said in an interview. “They know me, and they’re fairly pleased with the job I’ve done.” Pryor cites his bipartisan efforts, such as his role in negotiations to end the October government shutdown.
Meanwhile he paints Cotton as someone beyond the GOP’s normal conservatism. In 28 House votes last year, Cotton “was the only Republican in the Arkansas delegation to vote a certain way,” Pryor said in an interview at a duck-hunting supply store in Stuttgart. “So he’s not only out of touch with Arkansas, he’s out of touch with the Arkansas Republican Party.”
In one of those 28 votes, Cotton opposed renewal of a massive farm bill. House conservatives blocked the bill, demanding deeper cuts in food stamp spending. Pryor says Cotton’s three Republican colleagues were reasonable in supporting the bill, which would help Arkansas farmers.
Cotton said he wants to tighten eligibility and enforcement rules for food stamps.
Cotton grew up on an Arkansas cattle farm and earned bachelor’s and law degrees at Harvard University. He joined the Army, and saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tall, slim and ramrod straight, he is a bit stiffer in public than Pryor.
Pryor might be able to fend off Cotton because of his political skills “and the good feelings about the Pryor family” in the state, said Rex Nelson, a longtime Arkansas politics reporter before joining Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee’s staff.
However, Nelson said, “as long as Barack Obama is in the White House, it’s going to be hard for anyone in Arkansas with a “D” next to his name.”
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