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Rothenberg gives Cotton the edge in Arkansas

Stu Rothenberg has moved the Arkansas Senate race between Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton from “toss-up” to “tilts Republican.” His reasoning is as follows:

Currently, we seem to be headed toward a typical midterm election, with unhappy voters regarding Election Day as an opportunity to make a statement about the president. With Obama’s job rating in the upper 30s and low 40s in national polls — and lower in Arkansas — Pryor may not be able to swim against a strong Republican current. . . .

[T]he difference between 2012 [when Heidi Heitkamp won in North Dakota and Jon Tester won in Montana] and 2014 (and 2010) is that voters in 2012 had separate votes to cast for president and the Senate in North Dakota and Montana, but next year they will have only one. Given that, the president’s performance can have more of an impact on House and Senate voting decisions in a midterm than in a presidential year. . . .

While we continue to regard the Arkansas Senate race broadly as a tossup and think that Pryor is doing all of the right things, we are increasingly skeptical that he can localize the Senate contest as much as he needs to in a state where Obama is so unpopular.

We now believe that there is a better than even chance that as November approaches Arkansas voters will want to make a statement about the president’s performance, and the only way they will be able to do that is by their vote in the Senate race. Unless Pryor can drive Cotton’s negatives through the roof, and prevent his own from going there as well, it will be difficult for the senator to survive, no matter how good a race he runs.

I doubt very much that Pryor “can drive Cotton’s negatives through the roof.” According to Rothenberg, his attempts to do so have focused on charges that Cotton is “ambitious” and criticism of some of his votes.

Ambition isn’t a hanging offense; otherwise I’d see plenty of folks swinging from trees when I head to downtown Washington, D.C. this afternoon.

As for Cotton’s votes, it’s difficult to see how the few possibly unpopular ones he has cast could offset Pryor’s vote for Obamacare, which is even less popular in Arkansas than elsewhere.

Here, I think, is where Rothenberg’s analysis misses an important point. Pryor is not an innocent victim of President Obama’s lack of popularity. Pryor is the Senator without whose vote the main source of Obama’s unpopularity would not have come into being.

Rothenberg also errs in treating Tom Cotton as, essentially, a cipher in the election. Tom is an extraordinary American whose intelligence and courage took him from an Arkansas farm, to Harvard, to “big law” in Washington, D.C., and then to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight America’s enemies.

I believe that Tom will prove to be a stronger candidate than Rick Berg (in North Dakota) and Denny Rehberg (in Montana) were in 2012. But it’s true that Tom is untested in the kind of race he faces in his quest to unseat Pryor. Time will tell.

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