Republicans have a solid chance to pick up open Senate seats in West Virginia and North Dakota (write ups on those races will come later). Their third best chance for a pick-up may be in Arkansas. Since 2000 Arkansas has been the latest Southern state to take a distinctly rightward turn. Consider that up until 2000 Arkansas had four Democratic Congressmen, a Democratic Governor and state legislature and two Democratic Senators. Today, the state has a GOP controlled legislature, one GOP Senator and four GOP Congressman. Indeed, it is very likely the GOP will take the Governor’s mansion next year and build on their majorities in the state legislature.
Enter Tom Cotton. A two term Congressman elected in 2010, the GOP cleared the field for their preferred nominee early on. To understand Cotton’s chances one must understand Arkansas’s electoral history. Sean Trende at RCP does a pretty good job but I will paraphrase. Trende posits there were four factors that determined how fast a Southern state moved to the GOP: whether it had a sizable Reconstruction Republican contingent, an urban base that attracted Northern voters, a significant black population and a split in the state Democratic Party.
Arkansas lacked any of these factors and thus the state GOP had few issues to exploit. This largely explains why Arkansas only went GOP at the Presidential level from 1964 to 1996 in the wave years of 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988. At the state level the GOP consistently composed a small minority of the state legislature. Even more sobering for the GOP was that between the end of Reconstruction and 2008 the state had elected only two GOP Governors: Mike Huckabee served two terms only after rising to the office due to a Democratic scandal and Tim Hutchinson who served a mere one term.
Since the mid 2000’s the state has transformed from a conservative Democratic bastion to a GOP conservative bastion. The fissures the state GOP could never exploit began to appear. In both 2000 and 2004 the national Democratic Party ran liberal candidates while the GOP ran a Southerner. In 2008, the nomination of Barack Obama so accelerated this trend that the state had a PVI of R+14. In 2010, the GOP exploited this to win 3 of the state’s 4 Congressional districts and defeat Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln by 21 points. In 2012 they swept the Congressional delegation and took the legislature (albeit narrowly before party defections).
Democratic Senator Mark Pryor has deep roots in the state thanks to his father, former Governor and Senator David Hampton Pryor. Pryor used his family name to be elected Attorney General in 1999. Cultivating the image of a conservative Democrat just like his father, Pryor jumped at the chance to challenge scandal plagued Republican Senator Tim Hutchinson in 2002. Pryor was elected with 54% of the vote. Again, Trende at RCP has a map of the election results by county but I will summarize with the most important details.
First, Pryor did remarkably well in the Northwest Reconstruction Republican region and second he dominated the then heavily Democratic Southwest and Southeast of the state. In congressional and state elections today the Southwest and Southeast of the state has become more swing than uniformly Democratic. Pryor was helped by the fact that his father represented the region before he became Senator. It is not a stretch to say his strength in this area of the state scared off any competition in 2008.
In 2008 John McCain carried a strong majority of these counties. Blanche Lincoln’s failed reelection bid in 2010 also showed that this strength has largely disappeared for Democrats at the federal level. Lincoln struggled to win more than several sparsely populated counties in the region. Even though a strong majority of the state’s Democratic legislators hail from this region their numbers have dwindled since 2008.
All this poses problems for Pryor heading into 2014. The realignment that has occurred in the South, and especially Arkansas in the last half decade, is not just ideological but also generational. Rural conservative Democratic voters sons and daughters are Republican conservatives. This also means that as the older, white Democratic voting bloc in the state shrinks the Pryor name means less and less. Consider that David Pryor’s last run was in 1990, voters as old as 42 would never have had a chance to vote for him. Younger voters in Arkansas are also far more Republican than other states. In 2008 John McCain tied Obama among 18-29 year olds at 49%. In 2010 18-29 year olds gave Lincoln 40% of their vote compared to 51% for Boozman.
Second, Pryor cannot unmake the modern Democratic coalition. As the party has become more liberal, upscale and urban, it has paid a price with rural white voters. Trende wrote a piece on this here. Pryor in 2002 carried the rural vote, albeit narrowly. Yet in 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012 the GOP Presidential nominee or Senatorial nominee easily carried the rural vote. Pryor might be wishing his party had not passed Healthcare Reform with 60 partisan votes because his vote could be considered the deciding vote for the law. Rural voters in particular dislike the law because they fear it will make doctors run to large metropolitan hospitals. As Trende also points out, Pryor voted for immigration reform in a state where Hispanics are a small minority.
Third, any midterm environment would be hostile to a Democrat in Arkansas. For Pryor it is a demographic and strategic nightmare. Lincoln lost her reelection in 2010 by 21 points in the last midterm. Furthermore every single demographic and age group was far more Republican that year than 2002 and 2006. Even considering that 2010 heavily favored the GOP nationally and Lincoln was a weakened incumbent cannot discount the results. Pryor also has to be concerned with the fact that absent Obama on the ballot African-American turnout may drop in the Mississippi delta area of the state.
Lastly, the quality of his opponent matters. Cotton is a former Harvard Grad meaning he can connect with suburban Republicans in the Northwest of the state. He has a military background allowing him to connect to rural voters on cultural appeal. Finally, Cotton represents the Southeast of the state in Congress and carried it by a massive margin in 2012. This means if Pryor is to win reelection he must win or at least fight to a draw in Cotton’s district and make inroads with voters in the North and drive African-American turnout in the Mississippi Delta and Little Rock.
Pryor can point out Cotton’s weaknesses. He voted against the Farm Bill and Student Loan Reform, suggesting he might be to libertarian for the state. Pryor has also broken with the President on smaller pieces of legislation. And of course, constituency services matter. Still, the vast majority of voters in the state disapprove of the President and an August 6th Republican survey from Harper showed Cotton leading 43%-41% with 16% undecided. More concerning for Pryor was that only 38% of voters viewed him favorably and 40% did not. A plurality, 42% of voters disapproved of his job performance compared to 32% who did. Lastly, 48% of voters in the state identified as conservative and only 11% said Pryor was conservative. For his part the poll found Cotton had a 34% favorable rating compared to 26% who did not.
Republicans should not assume this seat is in the bag. Pryor has quite a war chest and outside groups have vowed to be involved in the race. Still, Cotton is an impressive fundraiser and is quite fortunate to start out a race tied with the incumbent. If anything, this should make the GOP invest in the race and give the state an all Republican federal delegation in 2015.