Democrats have struggled in the South under Obama, perhaps nowhere more so than Arkansas. In 2008 Democrats controlled three of the state’s four Congressional districts and both of its Senate seats. They also controlled the legislature and Governor’s mansion. Oh how times have change. Today, the GOP controls all four of the state’s Congressional districts and one of its two Senate seats. The GOP also controls both chambers of the legislature and is favored to win the state’s open Governorship this cycle. The only holdout to the state’s reddening hue is Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, son of former Governor and Senator David Pryor. Challenging him is freshman Congressman Tom Cotton. The race remains neck and neck but probe the underlying dynamics of the race and it becomes clearer the race is Cotton’s to lose.
It did not always look so rosy for Cotton. After bursting out of the gates early Cotton and his campaign made a series of gaffes. First, Cotton voted against the Agricultural Bill and failed to explain why. Pryor’s campaign pilloried him over the vote. Cotton also came out in favor of Paul Ryan’s budget to phase out Social Security. In a state that skews older and more tradition it was a grave error. Despite his mistakes however, Pryor was unable to open up a significant lead, albeit largely because Pryor’s campaign went negative all the time. Cotton’s campaign also failed to respond in any meaningful way until late into the summer. But the response has turned the race back in Cotton’s favor. Or perhaps Obama’s unpopularity has.
The President’s unpopularity in the state has proved impossible for Pryor to shake. The closeness of the polls belies just how hard it will be for Pryor to win. A recent PPP survey shows the President with a 61% disapproval rating and Pryor is not in much better shape with 51% disapproving. A YouGov survey found Cotton leading 49%-45% and both Pryor and the President deeply underwater in approval. Perhaps the most telling sign Pryor is living on borrowed time is a Talk Business poll that found Pryor ahead by two points but more importantly it found Cotton ahead in the swing Congressional district in the state, CD-4 (Cotton’s district).
Pryor going negative has kept the race close but it has not moved his numbers. Going negative has only led to more voters identifying as undecided but none of them have moved to his side. Traditionally, if attacks are working Cotton’s numbers should go down and Pryor’s up, as the alternative to the incumbent is seen as unfit to lead. But instead Pryor and Cotton are stagnant meaning the undecided will likely break for Cotton late.
While Democrats struggle, seemingly futilely, to hold traditionally Southern states they hope to turn the region a tint of blue by defeating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell is tied to an unpopular Congress, has horrid approval ratings and is facing Democratic darling Allison Grimes. Both have spent millions on the race and at the start of the summer Grimes had an edge. But since that time McConnell has hit her on not defending coal and being light on policy ideas. The pertinent political issues of immigration and national security have highlighted her lack of national policy experience. More importantly however, the fundamentals of the race have swung decisively in McConnell’s favor.
This can be seen in the most recent survey on the race from Survey USA. The poll finds McConnell has opened up a 46%-42% lead over Grimes. More important, however, is where McConnell’s lead comes from. McConnell has a commanding lead among men, not surprisingly. But he trails by a mere 1% among women. He only trails among 18-29 year olds and by a small 8% margin. McConnell has recovered from his tough primary and is holding almost 80% of his party while Grimes is stuck at 67% with self identified Democrats (McConnell steals 25%).
Kentucky Democrats have been competitive in federal races but never been able to get over the hump. The reason is simple. Democrats have been unable to maintain Democratic loyalty at the federal level in the Eastern part of the state (coal country). Grimes is having arguably less success with these traditional Democrats than prior candidates. While she leads in Louisville (45%-40%) and North Central Kentucky (49%-40%) she trails in Western Kentucky (long a stronghold of the GOP) and Eastern Kentucky by a whopping 59%-32% margin. Eastern Kentucky only contributes 15% of the sample in the survey but McConnell’s lead in the region is giving him a cushion in the race.
Grimes campaign has worked hard to appeal to these voters. But her lack of policy ideas on how to combat the President’s “War on coal” and battle the EPA have made McConnell’s claim she does not support coal stick. It has not helped her campaign is embroiled in a campaign finance scandal.
Democrats are bullish that polls show their incumbents/challengers running competitive in these red states. But the polls mask the electoral and political dynamics of each race. For Arkansas, this means Pryor has only been able to keep the race tied but unable to get ahead of Cotton (despite vastly outspending him). In Kentucky, the geography of the race is working in McConnell’s favor (just as in 2008) when he needs it to most. Democrat can deny it all they want but these races have turned away from their party for the cycle.
Addendum: Two new polls have come out on Kentucky from CNN and Rasmussen. You can see them here and here. The upshot being McConnell appears to have built a four to five point lead in the race that is being reflected in the polls.