The Mark Pryor vs. Tom Cotton Senate race in Arkansas is super interesting, and not just because of the ‘Coon Supper’

Arkansas is an interesting state politically. Because most coastal people associate it as kind of back-water or fly-over, a lot of attention isn’t necessarily paid to its off-the-beaten-path political shifts of the last 20 years. Consider this:

Arkansas defies easy classification within its region. It stands apart from Virginia, Florida, and Texas, which have been transformed from agricultural to fast-growing industrial or postindustrial economies in the last half-century. Meanwhile, though agriculture remains vital to Arkansas’s economy, the state also differs from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina, which have larger African-American populations and were ruled by the plantation caste in King Cotton’s heyday.

While the term has been overused since Walter Russell Mead coined it, Arkansas can best be thought of as a “Jacksonian” state—one whose politics was solidly in the rural, populist tradition of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. Yet Arkansas stuck with the national Democratic party even as urban elements began to dominate it. Not only did Arkansas vote for Franklin Roosevelt four times, but Arkansas senator Joseph Robinson was the upper chamber’s majority leader at the height of the New Deal.

The first crack in Democratic dominance did not appear until the presidential election of 1972: Arkansas voted Republican for the first time since Reconstruction, making it the last of the Southern states to go GOP. After that, Arkansas was something of a bellwether, supporting the victorious presidential candidate every four years until 2008. Since then, as the urban, progressive wing of the Democratic party has triumphed, Arkansas has become a solidly Republican state on the presidential level.

There are any number of hot races in 2014 (although probably less than 10-15 years ago, due to demographic swings), but Mark Pryor — the senior Senator from Arkansas (serving since 2003) —  vs. Tom Cotton (a first-term GOP Congressman) might be one of the most important. The strategy on both sides is representative of a lot of what you’ll see in contested 2014 races — the Republican (Cotton) will say a lot about ObamaCare, and the Democrat (Pryor) will do things like try to distance himself from the Democratic Party and realign with the state, i.e.:

But Pryor says he’s an Arkansan more than a “national Democrat.” His supporters hope his retail political skills can stop the GOP rise in this state, which came somewhat late to the Southern realignment game.

On that southern realignment front — obviously broadly addressed in the opening pull quote — part of the issue is simply that they had Bill Clinton as their Governor for most of the 1980s. In the Washington Post article that the second pull quote is from, Mike Boozman (the junior Senator from Arkansas) notes that the state missed out on going ‘full GOP’ during the Clinton years. Now it’s a completely different ballgame: Romney beat Obama by 24 points in 2012 there, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a state with a bigger Romney margin of victory. Pryor could be on the ropes as a result of all this; in early December, he was trailing Cotton in polls.

The flip side for Pryor is painting Cotton as an extremist; those viewpoints are summarized here. It should be noted that Cotton had the fifth-lowest rating among House freshmen in terms of working on bipartisan measures. But … he does have a military background and a cool ad with his mom:

When he headed to Miami without passing a new farm bill, the Dems jumped on him. Still, some believe Pryor is the most vulnerable Senate Democrat in 2014. Here’s the reasoning from veteran pollster Stu Rothenberg:

Voters can and do make distinctions, and that is why Pryor has any chance of winning re-election next year. But the difference between 2012 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.

We don’t now expect 2014 to be as bad for Democrats as 2010 was, but we also don’t expect the midterm election to be as good for Democrats as 2012 was. The makeup of the electorates will be different, and the president’s standing is likely to be lower.

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.

The GOP needs six seats to gain control of the Senate, so this race is a big one.

Now, to the Coon Supper. It’s in Gillett, Arkansas — about 100 miles from Little Rock — and takes place every year. It’s a big deal. It’s basically a must-stop for Arkansas pols. Here’s a clip from this year’s, featuring both Pryor and Cotton:

And here’s a clip from a few years back with a bunch of people trying to answer the ultimate question — “What does coon taste like?”

This is a super interesting race: you got Obama’s popularity on trial, a state that doesn’t totally fit the Southern mold, a chance for a straight-up GOP pick-up, things called Coon Suppers, ads involving moms, and more. Keep an eye on it. It will probably get really heated this summer.

Ted Bauer