WARREN, Arkansas — Television ads have relentlessly attacked Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor for more than a year, and not even his famous name is off limits. Says a little girl in a spot set at a spelling bee, it’s spelled “O-B-A-M-A.”
In a state where Democrats have become an endangered species in the past decade, the televised onslaught ought to have long since laid flat the Senate incumbent perhaps most vulnerable come November.
And yet you’d hardly know it from how at ease Pryor is among the crowd at Bradley County’s annual Pink Tomato Festival. To a warning from supporter Sam Wherry, who said he fears House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss has recharged tea party conservatives, “they’re really going to come after you now,” Pryorreplied: “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Work off-the-air is what’s keeping Pryor alive. He’s shown a remarkable personal touch with voters who are comfortable with his family name, for decades a powerful political brand in Arkansas. And his aggressive effort to counter televised attacks by emphasizing his independent political style has him still standing in a race few outside the state expect he can win.
“If you want to stop that gridlock and stop all that partisan bickering and all that, you have to have people in Washington that want to stop it,” he said.
If Republicans are to gain the six seats they need to win control of the Senate in November, Pryor’s seat is sure to be among them. President Barack Obama is less popular here than in about any other place, and the dollars from groups such as American Crossroads will continue to find any way possible — from the scandal at the Veterans Administration to escalating violence in Iraq — to tie Pryor to the president.
“I don’t think Mark Pryor’s road is going to get any easier,” said GOP nominee Tom Cotton, a first-term U.S. House member seeking a move up to the Senate.
It’s a race that sets up well for Cotton, even if devout Arkansas Republicans admit the combat veteran and Harvard-trained lawyer lacks Pryor’s personal ease with voters. GOP presidential nominees have carried Arkansas with increasing margins in every election since Bill Clinton’s last run in 1996. Eight years ago, Democrats made up a majority of the state’s congressional delegation; today, Pryor is the only one who isn’t a Republican.
This is also the first real race of Pryor’s political career. The son of David Pryor, a former governor, senator and congressman, Mark Pryor won election to the Senate in 2002 after scandal sunk his GOP opponent. He didn’t draw a challenger six years later.
“This year he’s forced to run on his own record,” said Alice Stewart, a GOP strategist based in Little Rock.
This campaign started early, with Pryor, Cotton and their advocate groups starting with television ads in February 2013. For Pryor, the quick start on TV was a move aimed at avoiding what some feel was the mistake made by his former Democratic colleague, Blanche Lincoln, by not engaging in her re-election effort early enough ahead of a lopsided loss in 2010.
Along with supporters, Pryor has bombarded voters with ads about the freshman Republican’s support of last year’s partial government shutdown and opposition to the 2014 farm bill.
“They tried to strangle my candidacy in the cradle, and it obviously isn’t working,” Cotton said.
Obama figures into the attacks of both. Cotton’s side has called Pryor an Obama rubber stamp for voting for the 2010 health care bill and the $787 billion economic stimulus package in 2009. Pryor, meanwhile, got some unintentional help from then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who paid for ads urging Pryor to support Obama’s call for expanded background checks for gun buyers. Pryor doubled down on his opposition to the idea.
“They are trying to say I’m just like Obama. Bottom line is it’s just not true,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m probably the most independent senator in Washington.”
Through June, both sides had spent roughly $16 million in television advertising pounding home those arguments. So much so that both men appeared to be fighting to win their place on the November ballot in the state’s May primary. In fact, both were unopposed.
But along with, or maybe in spite of, the TV ads, it is Pryor’s connections to the state that are keeping him competitive. His campaign borrows his father’s logo, a somewhat outdated looking image of a red, white and blue image of Arkansas emblazoned simply with “Pryor.” A new touch is the small script at the bottom: “Arkansas Comes First.”
Pryor did more listening than talking while strolling the Bradley County courthouse grounds at the Pink Tomato Festival. He nodded silently as Wherry, an influential African-American Democratic activist, pressed him about the race, and later as farmer Jonny Pitillo fretted aloud about the price of cotton.
The next morning, Pryor lit up with laughter the mostly black congregation of a Little Rock Baptist church. Tucked into his sermon was a subtle message, too, about how much all those television ads really ought to be worth.
“One thing that comes through loud and clear in the Bible is that it’s not just the words but the doing that leaves an impression,” he said.