This Is Not the Arkansas Mark Pryor Once Knew

The Democrat is banking on a strong family brand and retail skills. But his state has changed since his last tough race, and he's having a hard time adjusting.

PINE BLUFF, Ark.— The lone Democrat in Arkansas' congressional delegation has his family's independent brand, strong retail-campaigning skills, and the might of the Democratic ground game behind him. Yet still, that might not be enough to ensure Mark Pryor gets to hold onto his Senate seat.

This is Pryor's first competitive race in 12 years—and the Arkansas he is courting is dramatically different than the one that first sent him to Washington in 2003. Once heavily Democratic, the state is becoming increasingly inhospitable to Democratic candidates, ever since Bill Clinton's heyday here.

Add to that a campaign that Republicans have successfully nationalized and a president who's deeply unpopular, and Pryor's old campaign playbook looks weak against GOP Rep. Tom Cotton.

No matter that Pryor is about as Arkansas as you can get. His family's name has been on the ballot in one way or another for half a century. His father, David Pryor, represented the state as governor and U.S. senator for more than 20 years; the younger Pryor picked up that torch, serving first in the state Legislature then getting elected attorney general in 1998 and to the U.S. Senate in 2002.

That legacy plays a big part in Pryor's campaign message: he knows everyone, everyone knows his family, and he's focused first and foremost on the concerns of Arkansans. He frequently mentions the "Arkansas Comes First" plaque he keeps on his Senate office desk, saying it reminds him of what's most important.

"You know me," he told a group of seniors at a community center here last week, as campaign aides handed out bumper stickers that looked just like the ones his dad used to use. "I love this state."

As for the difficult race this year, "I've always been ready for it," Pryor told me after the event. "I love traveling the state and talking to people. As you can tell from being here, Arkansas is still a very retail politics state: People here know me, they know I've been to their communities many, many times, they know I try very hard to listen to Arkansans and represent Arkansas."

His father, along with Clinton and former Sen. Dale Bumpers, make up the "Big Three" of Arkansas politics—well-known Democratic titans who are still beloved here and thrived on the retail-politicking nature of the state's campaign culture. That's what Pryor grew up around, and it's those pols who are going all out to ensure he wins. Clinton, who just wrapped up a two-day, four-event swing through the state, is coming back for more big rallies this weekend; the elder Pryor is a frequent fixture on the campaign trail, and has been hitting the road himself to help ensure that a Pryor stays in the Senate next year.

"Mr. President, Governor Beebe, there is one other governor here we need to recognize—and that's David Pryor," Mark Pryor said to applause at a rally in Conway, Ark., making sure to give homage to his father on the stump.

But the road to a GOP Senate majority inevitably passes through Arkansas, and recent polling shows Republicans may well get their wish here: Cotton is up an average of 4.4 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics, and has led all but one of the last month's public polls.

Republicans frequently point to two numbers to make their case: the low 30s, which is where Obama's approval rating in Arkansas has hovered all year, and 93 percent, which they say is the percentage of the time Pryor has voted with Obama in the Senate. Their strategy isn't so much about demolishing Pryor personally as it is about tying him fully to an unpopular Democratic president.

Just ask former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is campaigning for Cotton. "I feel really sorry for Mark that he has to campaign in an environment like we have now," he said in an interview. Ultimately, he added, if Cotton wins it will have little to do with Pryor himself or the family's brand and everything to do with national Democratic policies coming out of D.C.

"The Pryor family's a great family—this state loves that family," Huckabee said. "I don't think this is a rejection of the Pryor family, it's not a rejection of Mark Pryor. This is a repudiation of what [voters] are tired of in Washington."

The strategy appears to be working for Cotton, so he's sticking with it in the final weeks. In the candidates' first debate Monday afternoon, Cotton mentioned Obama more than 50 times in 90 minutes, working to tie Pryor to the unpopular president at every turn. "President Obama said his policies are on the ballot, every single one of them," Cotton said. "In Arkansas, the name of those policies is Mark Pryor."

While Pryor has no trouble talking about Arkansas' political history, his father's legacy, or even his opponent's deficiencies, he's been repeatedly unprepared for the policy questions he's received along the way—in particular, a question about whether Obama had handled the Ebola crisis appropriately.

"Uhhh "¦" his answer to an NBC News question began painfully. This, from the candidate whose campaign ran an ad criticizing Cotton over preparedness for pandemics like Ebola.

Pryor went on to say he hadn't seen the latest briefings on the situation so it was "hard to tell." (He later released a statement saying he'd "given better answers to tougher questions," and that the U.S. needs to work to contain the threat in Africa and enhance screening processes at home.)

When I asked him two days later about the enhanced Ebola screenings at U.S. airports, Pryor answered quickly as he began walking away: "We need to do that. We need to do that. That's just important. This is one of those things you've got to really do everything you can do."

For Cotton, all of this has only been good news. Indeed, things here look to be falling in place for the first-term GOP House member. Once Cotton was decried as too hawkish on foreign policy for a war-weary country; now his past comments about the need for action in Syria and the Middle East look prescient.

Cotton's campaign is capitalizing, releasing its first foreign policy-themed TV ad Monday that criticizes Obama for "underestimating" ISIS and touts the Republican's own "tough decisions as an Army ranger in Iraq." In an interview on his campaign bus in Fort Smith, Cotton argued that he'd been ahead of the curve on pushing for stronger action in the Middle East. "A year ago, I was advocating that we take action against our enemies in Syria before the problem festered even more," Cotton said. "Mark Pryor opposed it."

All that said, Pryor has managed to keep the race close. Given the state's Republican tilt, his family name and skills on the trail are likely a part of that. At this point in 2010, Democratic then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln was down anywhere between 14 and 21 points against Republican John Boozman; she ultimately lost by 21 points. Should Pryor lose, it will be by a far smaller margin.

"I think we're going to surprise some of the lingering doubters," said Pryor spokesman Erik Dorey. "Arkansans are a lot smarter than Congressman Cotton gives them credit for: They know Mark Pryor, and they know that he's been consistently one of the most independent-minded and bipartisan senators."

And not all national issues are detrimental to his campaign: Democrats have seized on entitlement reform and women's issues to go after Cotton, painting him as both overly ambitious and highly partisan. In Monday's debate, Pryor said Cotton doesn't "have the reputation, the ability, or the desire to walk across the aisle to get things done in Washington."

Ask Democrats here how they feel about the race and most think Pryor can still narrowly hold on. The idea that Arkansas has moved into the GOP's column is "a lot of Washington talk," said Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service and a veteran of Arkansas politics. "The race is still very much a toss-up—I don't think you'd see the amount of Republican special-interest money coming in and trying to beat Mark Pryor if they thought this race was locked up."