The tough road ahead for Mark Pryor

Politico serves up a piece about Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who faces a formidable challenge from our friend Tom Cotton. One doesn’t have to read between the lines to see that the author, Manu Raju, has doubts about Pryor’s re-election prospects.

Pryor tells Politico that his path to victory rests on making the case that he’s not a party line Obama loyalist, but rather the kind of conservative Democrat that has long thrived in Arkansas, even as the breed disappeared across the South. But Raju notes that Pryor voted in favor of President Obama’s signature legislative initiatives — Obamacare, the stimulus package, and immigration reform.

Raju also points out that, although Pryor and Cotton are running essentially even in the polls, Pryor’s support drops when respondents are informed that Pryor voted for Obamacare. Without Pryor’s vote, Obamacare would have failed in the Senate.

Pryor insists that Arkansas “just doesn’t fit the national paradigm.” He’s right. Arkansas is much more conservative, and much more anti-Obamacare, than the nation as a whole.

Pryor wants to attribute Arkansas’ recent voting pattern to Obama’s personal unpopularity. But that unpopularity stems from Obama’s leftist policies, including those for which Pryor provided vital support. Or does Pryor believe that his state’s anti-Obama sentiment is race-based?

The Politico article also suggests to me that Pryor doesn’t have a winning anti-Cotton message. He asks, “What has [Cotton] done to earn a promotion, if you will, to the Senate? Has he passed a bill? I don’t know of anything that he’s passed.”

The Cotton campaign responds that “it is the height of arrogance and a little desperate for Mark Pryor to suggest that a man who voluntarily put his life on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan to defend our freedom hasn’t served enough to dare run against him.” This seems to me like an effective counter.

Pryor also tries to deflect criticism of his vote for Obamacare by noting that the GOP-led Arkansas Legislature passed legislation to comply with the Medicaid expansion under the federal law. “It couldn’t be that bad of a vote if the Republican state Legislature just adopted it in our state,” Pryor pleads.

This argument smacks of desperation. As the Cotton campaign points out, “When he cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, Mark Pryor voted to force Arkansas to expand a broken Medicaid system or lose all Medicaid funding.” Moreover, there is a lot more to Obamacare than just the Medicaid expansion.

In the end, Pryor seems to be relying on his folksy style and family name. According to Raju, “Part of Pryor’s pitch is stylistic: He has an easy-going demeanor and projects himself as a politician willing to talk to just about anybody, a contrast from the hard-liner Cotton, who has the ability to fire up his base.”

I agree with the first part of this statement. Pryor, who spoke at the high school commencement of one of my daughters (he attended her school here in the D.C. suburbs when he was a Senator’s son) does have a good demeanor. He’s a good campaigner and probably a good guy.

But Raju errs, I think, in suggesting that Tom Cotton lacks an easy demeanor and is unwilling to talk to just about anyone. Tom can serve up the red meat when called upon to do so. But he’s not the natural fire-brand that Raju imagines.

It remains to be seen how Tom will come across to voters during the course of a long, hotly contested campaign. But Pryor shouldn’t assume that his opponent lacks the people skills to connect with the voters of Arkansas.

By the same token, Republicans shouldn’t assume that Pryor’s defeat is preordained. But after reading the Politico piece, I remain convinced that Tom has the edge in this race.

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