16 Questions: The Arkansas Senate Race

In the fifth edition of The Atlantic's Midterm Cheat Sheet, Roby Brock discusses the contest between Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton.

Senator Mark Pryor greets for Secretary of State Sharon Priest at a rally in Little Rock. (Danny Johnston/AP)

It’s no secret that Americans are turned off politics and disgusted with Congress. Pundit after pundit has stepped forward to declare the 2014 midterms “an election about nothing.” There are surely good reasons to be pessimistic, but for voters in states with crucial races, the election really is about something—local jobs, God-given freedoms, the right to control one’s body, or how people in the state feel about President Obama. And the stakes are real: Control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

To understand what’s going on in some of the hottest Senate races, The Atlantic has put together its own version of the Proust Questionnaire, focusing on the midterms. And we’ve asked top political reporters and columnists from those states to help understand what’s going on and how it will affect the country.

Today's edition features Roby Brock, a seasoned watcher of Arkansas politics and host of Talk Business & Politics in Little Rock. Brock analyzes the battle between incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Pryor and Republican Representative Tom Cotton.

What’s the biggest issue in this race?

Political philosophies: Doctrinaire conservatism versus middle-of-the-road compromise. These two Senate candidates couldn't be any more different.

Describe Cotton's campaign operation:

Disciplined, predictable. The messaging stays pretty consistent—it's all Obama, most of the time. If Pryor makes a move, the response is usually not hard to figure out.

Describe Pryor's campaign operation:

Pryor's campaign has had a lot of discipline too, and he's been tough. Messaging has stayed consistent on appealing to seniors, women, and highlighting Cotton's problematic votes (farm bill, disaster relief, violence against women act, children's hospital vote). That said, Pryor has thrown a few curveballs. His faith message earlier in the season was different. Certainly, he's been willing to take some chances with his Ebola ad, for example.

What you’ll remember in 10 years:

We'll look back at this election as either the end of a political dynasty and birth of a new political dynasty, or the extension of a political dynasty. This Senate race is about to define the next generation of Arkansas politics.

Best/worst ad:

Best ads—Pryor with his father, [former Senator] David, discussing Mark's cancer:
And Cotton with his drill sergeant in response to Pryor's "entitlement" comment:
Both ads humanized the candidates and worked on a variety of different levels. Worst ads: Pick any independent-expenditure group ad and you'll have a winner. They've all been atrocious. Pryor and Cotton should be in jail if they were guilty of all they've been accused of.

Biggest surprise:

Cotton getting married, announcing pending fatherhood.

How nasty has this race been, on a scale of one to 10?


Biggest gaffe:

I could point to tripping points by both candidates throughout the race, but none have been lethal. The biggest gaffes have really been in their voting records and how they've been used by each other in the campaigns. Pryor's vote for the Affordable Care Act has been the club that continues to hammer him. Cotton's votes on items like the farm bill, disaster relief, children's hospital, etc. have given Pryor plenty to work with.

How his party sees Cotton:

Military hero, principled conservative

How his party sees Pryor:

Bipartisan hard worker, personable. and nice-guy politician

Which group of voters will decide the race?:

Independent voters, who have been breaking GOP in last two cycles. They appear headed in that direction again in 2014.

How the man on the street sees Cotton, in 10 words or less:

Too many different opinions to choose one phrase

How the man on the street sees Pryor, in 10 words or less:

Too many different opinions to choose one phrase

Favorite Arkansan food:


Favorite ever Arkansas politician:

The late, great Sid McMath, post-World War II governor, war hero, and Southern progressive. He once told me, "What's the point of having political capital if you're not willing to spend it?"

Favorite Arkansan, period:

Bill Clinton. In my lifetime, there just hasn't been a larger personality to follow from the local level to the world stage.