GILLETT, Ark. — It’s voters like Jammy Turner who give Republicans hope of ending an Arkansas political dynasty and taking control of the U.S. Senate this fall.
Turner, among the hundreds who attended the annual “Coon Supper” on Saturday in this town about 100 miles southeast of Little Rock, said he respects Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who wants a third term. But Turner supports Republican Tom Cotton, a freshman congressman who says Pryor’s ties to President Barack Obama make him the wrong senator for Arkansas.
“I think Pryor is a good advocate for Arkansas,” said Turner, 34, a salesman for Monsanto crop products who wears a neatly cropped beard and denim jacket. “But I don’t think the Democratic Party, in general, makes decisions for the better good.” That good, he said, includes personal freedom and self-reliance.
If Republicans are to gain the six seats they need to take control of the Senate, they almost surely must win in Arkansas this year, which would add to their big victories in the past two elections in Arkansas.
If anyone can stop the GOP streak, Democrats say, it’s Pryor, who has spent his life politicking in a state where many voters still want to know their candidates personally. Pryor’s popular father, David, long represented the state in Washington, in the House and Senate, and also was governor.
Faced with a deeply unpopular president, Mark Pryor sidesteps Obama rather than criticizes him, and asks voters to see him more as an Arkansan than a national Democrat.
At Saturday’s no-alcohol event, where etiquette calls for participants to take a few bites of boiled-and-baked raccoon, pretending to like it, before switching to ribs and brisket, Pryor tried to make the best of his two political worlds.
He has attended Gillett’s annual suppers since the mid-1970s “with my dad,” Pryor, 51, told the crowd. He then introduced his three guests from Washington: Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who joined Pryor for a duck hunt Sunday.
When Cotton, 36, took his turn at the microphone, he said “my name is Tom Cotton,” and introduced his mother, Avis, who appears in his TV ads.
Arkansas politics are changing at a neck-snapping pace.
Six years ago, Republicans didn’t bother to challenge Pryor’s bid for a second term. Two years later, when his Democratic colleague Blanche Lincoln ran for a third term, she lost in a landslide to Republican John Boozman, now the state’s junior senator.
For a time, Arkansas dragged its feet while other Southern states shifted strongly to the Republican Party. Now it’s catching up, and Pryor’s re-election campaign will test how far the realignment goes.
For nine straight presidential elections starting in 1972, Arkansas backed the national winner. But everything changed when Obama ran, and Arkansas veered sharply from the national mainstream. Obama lost the state to Arizona Sen. John McCain by 20 percentage points in 2008. He fared even worse against Mitt Romney in 2012.
After decades of dominance, Democrats lost control of the Legislature. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe withstood the tide, however, winning in 2006 and 2010.
Boozman, who spent a decade in the U.S. House before moving to the Senate, says native son Bill Clinton postponed Arkansas’ partisan shift.
“It missed out on really going Republican during the Clinton years,” Boozman said. Now, he said, Obama’s unpopularity and the public’s intense dislike of the president’s health care law are feeding a GOP wave that threatens to end Pryor’s career.
Roby Brock, who hosts a business-and-politics TV show in Arkansas, said both parties are airing attack ads that boil down to “Pryor equals Obama, Cotton equals extremism.”
Obama “has been toxic for Arkansas Democrats,” Brock said. “There is a cultural disconnect,” he said, and unpopular policies such as the health insurance law “have been exploited expertly by Arkansas Republicans.”
Some see talk of a “cultural disconnect” between white rural voters and a black president as code for racial resentment.
Janine Parry, a political scientist and pollster at the University of Arkansas, says it’s simplistic to attribute Arkansas’ declining Democratic loyalty entirely to race. But race “is central” to the shifting election patterns, she said.
Lincoln’s lopsided loss in 2010 clearly is a red flag for Pryor, Parry said, but he has some advantages Lincoln lacked.
“First,” she said, “he’s a Pryor.” Also, Parry noted, 2010 was a devastating year for Democrats nationwide, and November seems unlikely to produce a comparable “wave election.”
For Pryor to win, she said, “he’s got to convince people he’s a Pryor even more than he’s a Democrat.”
Cotton is doing all he can to prevent that.
“Senator Pryor has been voting with President Obama more than 90 percent of the time,” Cotton told about 50 people who helped open his Little Rock campaign headquarters this weekend. He never fails to mention Pryor’s vote for the 2010 health care law, and often cites Obama’s support for the 2009 economic stimulus.
Pryor says efforts to equate him with Obama won’t work. “People in Arkansas know that’s not true,” he said in an interview. “They know me, and they’re fairly pleased with the job I’ve done,” he said.
Pryor promotes his efforts to ease partisan gridlock, such as his role in two-party negotiations to end the October government shutdown. His campaign emphasizes his local initiatives, such as “saving Arkansas State University’s ROTC program.”
While Cotton portrays Pryor as indistinguishable from national Democrats, the senator paints Cotton as someone beyond the GOP’s normal conservatism, a tea partyer and “outlier” even in Arkansas’ all-Republican House delegation.
In 28 House votes last year, Cotton “was the only Republican in the Arkansas delegation to vote a certain way,” Pryor said in an interview at a duck-hunting supply store in Stuttgart. “So he’s not only out of touch with Arkansas, he’s out of touch with the Arkansas Republican Party.”
In one of those 28 votes, Cotton opposed renewal of a massive farm bill. House conservatives blocked the bill, demanding deeper cuts in food stamp spending.
Pryor says Cotton’s three Republican colleagues were reasonable in supporting the bill, which would help Arkansas farmers.
Cotton, in an interview, said he wants to tighten eligibility and enforcement rules for food stamps. Congress eventually must resolve its differences to avoid sharp increase in diary prices, he said.
“I don’t think Arkansans should have to pay $8 for a gallon of milk because Washington politicians can’t get their act together,” Cotton said.
It’s the kind of snappy sound bite that annoys Democrats. Cotton’s fellow Arkansas Republicans, they say, were seeking just such a bipartisan accord by backing the farm bill that Cotton opposed.
Cotton grew up on an Arkansas cattle farm and earned bachelor’s and law degrees at Harvard University. He joined the Army, saw combat in Iraq as a platoon leader and also served in Afghanistan.
Tall, slim and ramrod straight, he is a bit stiffer in public than Pryor. He accepts the tea party label with a caveat.
“I want to be the candidate of the tea party,” Cotton said. He added: “I want to be the candidate of the establishment.”
Brock, the TV host, said Cotton appears thus far to being uniting the state’s fractious GOP. But having run only one fairly easy House campaign, Brock said, Cotton, hasn’t endured the statewide races that Pryor has.
Pryor might be able to fend off Cotton because of his political skills “and the good feelings about the Pryor family” in Arkansas, said Rex Nelson, a longtime Arkansas politics reporter before joining Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee’s staff.
However, Nelson said, “as long as Barack Obama is in the White House, it’s going to be hard for anyone in Arkansas with a “D” next to his name.”
By Charles Babington, Associated Press