Senator Mark Pryor’s political destiny -- and potentially that of the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate -- may come down to which president Arkansas voters most closely associate with him.
Republicans are trying to paint Pryor as a Barack Obama Democrat who backed the health-care legislation and 2009 economic stimulus. Pryor is more comfortable being associated with a different president, fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton.
The race between Pryor and Republican Tom Cotton, a freshman U.S. House member, will test whether Democrats in Clinton’s mold can survive in the politically changing South. It also presents a challenge for Republicans who need to win such contests in 2014 if they’re to gain control of the Senate.
“Arkansas voters at root are conservative and they realize that the national Democratic Party, led particularly over the last five years by Barack Obama, no longer reflects their views and their principles,” Cotton, 36, said in an interview last week after touring a paper mill in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. “Mark Pryor has been a key enabler of Barack Obama.”
Pryor, who won a second term in 2008 without a Republican opponent, is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats. Both sides of the political spectrum are already spending heavily to try to influence the outcome.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the 100-member chamber. Democrats are defending seven in states Republican Mitt Romney won in the 2012 presidential election. Democratic Senate retirements in Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota have created open races that provide prime opportunities for Republicans. Along with Pryor, Republicans are aiming to unseat incumbents Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
Pryor, 50, isn’t shying away from Obama even as the president lost the state by 23 percentage points in 2012. Obama, who hasn’t visited Arkansas from the White House, is “always welcome,” Pryor said in an interview in Clarendon.
Clinton maintains ties to Arkansas, where he started his political career as an attorney general and governor. The Little Rock airport is named after him and his wife, Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. secretary of state and New York senator who may run for president in 2016. Mark Pryor’s father, David Pryor, was governor when Bill Clinton was attorney general.
In March, Clinton helped raise $1 million for Pryor’s re-election, and he and his wife are expected to make more appearances. Pryor, whose father was a U.S. senator before him, backed Hillary Clinton over Obama in their 2008 primary fight.
“The reason this is a race of national significance is because it’s about whether a senator who cares about his own people more than ideological purity can be financed, elected, lifted by the people he has served in the face of all these crazy currents that are taking America and tearing it to shreds,” Bill Clinton said in March.
Reflecting the weight of the Clinton name in the state, even Cotton has modest praise for the former president, especially when contrasted with Obama.
“Bill Clinton had more accomplishments,” said Cotton. “He was more willing to work with Republicans, rather than drawing hard lines in the sand.”
Cotton, whose sprawling district includes Hope, Clinton’s birthplace, is still learning his way around. The Evergreen Packaging mill he toured is one of the state’s largest employers, with more than 1,000 workers, yet he apologized for not visiting before.
He said he isn’t concerned about the former president campaigning for Pryor. “I don’t think when Arkansans go into the voting booth in this race or any other race, they are casting ballots on endorsements,” he said.
The state’s politics have changed since Pryor’s last campaign. His former Democratic colleague, Blanche Lincoln, was beaten by more than 20 percentage points in 2010 after Republicans tied her to Obama and her support of the health-care law. In 2012, Republicans won control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and Pryor is now the lone Arkansas Democrat in Congress.
There are no shortages of policy differences between Pryor and Cotton, a military veteran with two Harvard degrees who has also worked for the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. The mild-mannered Pryor is presenting himself as an independent and bipartisan voice in an increasingly divided Washington.
“Being president of the United States is the hardest job in the world,” Pryor said. “We have a lot of people in Washington who are determined to make it even harder, and I have a problem with that.” Pryor said he’s prepared to defend the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
“When you have a big, complicated piece of legislation like that,” he said, “if you get 80 percent of it right, you’ve done something.”
Cotton, like other House Republicans, favors using budget battles this year to stall the health-care law. “We need to do what we can to try to, if not defund or repeal, then at least delay some of the core provisions,” he said.
Bill Clinton will be in Little Rock on Sept. 4 to give a speech on the health-care law. Amy Schlesing, a Pryor spokeswoman, said the senator plans to keep a previously scheduled engagement elsewhere.
Beyond health care, Cotton cites Pryor’s votes supporting the 2009 stimulus and a 2004 extension of the assault-weapons ban as evidence that he is out of sync with the state’s voters.
“He certainly tries to talk a conservative game in Arkansas, particularly when he’s in an election cycle, but in Washington he votes in a fairly liberal manner,” he said.
Pryor has taken steps to distance himself from the president and his party, including parting ways with Senate Democrats on gun control by helping Republicans in April block Obama’s proposal to expand background checks for gun purchasers.
That vote prompted a political ad against him by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group whose co-chairman is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
Pryor responded with his own ad in May. “No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do,” he said. “I listen to Arkansas.”
Pryor and Cotton differ over two legislative topics critical to the Arkansas economy: the farm bill and a proposal to allow states to impose sales taxes on purchases from out-of-state sellers.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, backs the legislation, saying Internet-based business have an unfair edge. The retailer is the state’s top private-sector employer. Cotton said he has “real reservations” about the proposal because of the “burden it would impose on small businesses.”
Pryor says the legislation would make Arkansas’ sales tax fairer and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation supports the legislation.
And with agriculture accounting for almost a quarter of Arkansas economic activity, Cotton says farmers would like their subsidies “evaluated on their own merits and not held hostage to Barack Obama’s food-stamp program.”
Pryor said separating the two programs, as Republicans are seeking, is wrong. “I don’t think America wants to go back to where people are starving in the streets,” he said.