In another era and in different circumstances, this column might have begun with, "No sooner had Rep. Tom Cotton announced that he was running for the U.S. Senate Tuesday than his opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, began attacking his record."
But Arkansas will be at or near the center of the political universe in 2014, so it happened sooner than that. The Pryor campaign released a statement the week before Cotton’s announcement declaring that Arkansans wouldn’t like Cotton’s record once they became familiar with it.
Let’s hope the days of "We welcome Candidate X to the campaign and look forward to a vigorous debate" aren’t completely gone, but on the other hand, this campaign began a long time before it officially started. Cotton’s candidacy has been the worst-kept secret in Arkansas for a while now. Pryor, meanwhile, has been the target of negative ads for months by people who, though not officially affiliated with the Cotton campaign, have been working to elect him.
Cotton is a darling of big money national groups like the Club for Growth – seriously, it’s like they want him to be president someday. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Club’s political action committee has spent almost $183,000 against Pryor – and by extension, for Cotton – this year while spending only $8,000 in all other races combined. The Senate Conservatives Fund, which has spent $400,000 to defeat Pryor, this week said it just might support Cotton, as if that’s not already a foregone conclusion.
In another life, I once had a political operative tell me, "My philosophy is, if they hit you with a feather, you hit them with a brick." If there’s something harder than bricks, the Cotton and Pryor campaigns will be throwing them.
This is happening in Arkansas because Pryor is a vulnerable Democratic senator in a state that is trending the other direction. Not too long ago, five of the six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation were Democrats and one was a Republican. Those numbers were reversed in 2010, and at the same time, Republicans have taken over the Legislature after a century and a half of Democratic rule. Plus, because it’s small, Arkansas is a much cheaper state to win than, say, California.
Senate seats are highly prized. There are only 100 senators, compared to 435 members of the House of Representatives, and rules such as the filibuster give individual senators an an enormous amount of power. Besides, many House district lines have been drawn in such a way – it’s called "gerrymandering"— that relatively few of them are competitive between parties.
If Republicans win the Senate, they’ll control the Congress since they already control the House, but they face an uphill battle. Democrats and their allies now occupy 54 seats, there is a special election in New Jersey where the Democrats probably will take a seat from the Republicans, and Vice President Joe Biden can break any 50-50 tie.
That means the Republicans probably will need a net gain of six seats next year.
However, Republicans do have some advantages this cycle. Mid-term elections tend to favor the party that doesn’t occupy the White House. In fact, Republicans gained nine seats in 1994, two years into President Clinton’s first term. The electorate in 2014 will be older and more conservative than it was in 2012, when President Obama was on the ballot inspiring young people to vote. According to the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, Democrats control 20 of the 35 contested Senate seats this year, which means they have more turf to defend. Seven states currently being represented by a Democrat voted for Mitt Romney for president. Only two states now represented by a Republican voted for Obama.
Still, six seats is a lot. For Republicans to get there, they probably must win the Pryor-Cotton race. If Democrats hold onto Pryor’s seat, they’ll probably keep control of the Senate.
This will be one of the most important, most watched races in the country. That means the money will be there for both Cotton and Pryor – enough to buy plenty of bricks.
My advice? Duck.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner