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Why Democrats still have a chance to hold the Senate seat in Arkansas

April 24, 2014, at 1:42 PM
 

On the Political Wire podcast, we spoke to Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, about Arkansas' unique politics and how they could impact the state's marquee U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races.

Here are five takeaways from the discussion:

1. Sen. Mark Pryor (D) isn't in as much trouble as former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) was in 2010. Conventional wisdom holds that Pryor is highly vulnerable because he represents a red state in a low-turnout year that's expected to have a GOP-favorable electorate. The race has drawn some comparison to the 2010 race in which now-Sen. John Boozman (R) ousted Lincoln as part of the GOP wave. But a close look at the polls suggests that Pryor is in pretty good shape. He's ahead, albeit by small margins, in most of the recent polling, Rutherford said. A new poll out this week actually has Pryor ahead by 10 points. Pryor is also a talented retail politician and has the family name to boot, Rutherford said. Pryor's edge is even reflected in a request by Rep. Tom Cotton, his Republican opponent, for a series of debates. "John Boozman wasn’t running around challenging Blanche Lincoln to debates," Rutherford quipped.

2. As impressive as Cotton's biography is, his campaign has been less impressive. Cotton certainly has an impressive biography, highlighted by his Iraq and Afghanistan military service. But Cotton has something of a campaign problem, Rutherford argued: He's made his race almost entirely about President Obama. While this strategy may play well to conservative base voters, Cotton has to explain to middle-of-the-road voters why he was justified in some of his more controversial votes. According to Rutherford, voters may wonder, "Is this about Barack Obama, or is this about you?" Cotton was one of the Republicans whose votes on spending legislation last fall helped lead to a government shutdown, and he also opposed farm bill legislation that is key in Arkansas. "He hasn’t run the campaign that John Boozman ran," Rutherford said. "John Boozman made Blanche Lincoln the issue. Tom Cotton has made Tom Cotton the issue."

3. Expect both candidates to raise a lot of money. They certainly have so far. Last quarter's campaign-finance reports show Cotton raising $1.35 million to Pryor's $1.22 million, though the latter has far more in the bank. The flow of money reflects how highly coveted the seat is by both parties, given the fight for Senate control in November. "I don’t think it’s a question — the Republicans want this seat, the Democrats want this seat," Rutherford said. "Both these guys are going to raise money."

4. TV ads aren't as important in this race as you might think. Retail politics matter a lot there. Although political observers often pay close attention to what candidates spend on TV ads, that may not be as important in Arkansas. Unlike big states like Florida or California or Texas, Arkansas can be traversed by a candidate in one day. That means one thing: "This is a campaign where TV does matter, but it’s also a campaign where showing up for Kiwanis Club or for the university class does matter." Over the years, the state's relative compactness has fostered a unique brand of retail politics in which politicians' stances on issues may not be nearly as critical as in other states, Rutherford said: "[Voters] may disagree with some of their political positions, but they also get to know them."

5. Expect a close gubernatorial race in Arkansas. Both parties have put forth strong candidates with a record of public service: former Rep. Mike Ross (D) and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R). Polls that pit the two likely nominees against each other suggest that this race is far from being decided; in some Ross leads, and in others Hutchinson does. Although Rutherford thinks Ross has the slight edge right now, "we’re in April and it’s a long way to November." Don't expect what happens in the governor's race and Senate race to be too closely tied together, though, Rutherford added: "This is a state that in 1968 voted for George Wallace for president, J. William Fulbright for the United States Senate, and Winthrop Rockefeller for governor."

Listen to the whole conversation here:

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