LITTLE ROCK — With the November 2014 election still a year and a half away, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor already is under attack from both ends of the political spectrum as he heads into what is sure to be one of the toughest election fights of his political career.
Two conservative groups, the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Action, have placed ads on Arkansas airwaves accusing the Democratic senator of being out of touch with Arkansas values and too closely allied with President Obama, particularly in his support of the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010, the 2008 Wall Street bailout and the $787 billion stimulus program of 2009.
Meanwhile, a liberal group, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has run ads criticizing Pryor for his vote against a measure to expand background checks for gun sales.
Pryor drew no Republican opponent when he ran for a second six-year term in 2008, but the political climate in Arkansas has shifted dramatically since that year, which also ushered in Barack Obama’s presidency. Pryor is now the lone Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation. Republicans now hold a majority of Arkansas’ legislative seats, as well as the constitutional offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state land commissioner.
No Republican has announced for the 2014 U.S. Senate race, but freshman Congressman Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, is being encouraged to challenge Pryor. The race is widely expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races in the nation as Democrats fight to retain their majority in that body.
"I think we all knew this was going to be a tough election cycle for him," said Debbie Wilhite of Little Rock, a Democratic political consultant. "I think that it started a little earlier than we would have thought, but it’s not surprising."
Wilhite said Pryor was wise to respond to the ad by Bloomberg’s group with a television ad of his own. In the ad, which began airing Friday, Pryor says, "No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do. I listen to Arkansas."
"I think it’s good that they’ve already come up with a commercial and are putting their talking points out there and not just letting it all lie on the table," Wilhite said.
The ad has a decidedly anti-Obama tone, with Pryor saying he "opposed President Obama’s gun control legislation."
Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of National Journal Hotline, said Pryor understands how vulnerable he is and is seeking to run on his reputation as an independent operator. He said Pryor needs to convince voters that he does not take orders from President Obama or the Democratic Party.
"If voters are thinking about President Obama when they cast a ballot next year, Pryor is in deep trouble. If they’re thinking about Mark Pryor the Arkansan, he’ll be in much better shape," Wilson said.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said there are four vulnerable Democrats who share a similar quality — all come from states that Obama lost to Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Arkansas voted 61 percent to 37 percent in favor of Romney in 2012. Obama fared a little better in the three other "vulnerable" states – Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina. Romney won Louisiana 58-41, Alaska 55-41 and North Carolina 51-48.
"This (anti-Obama message) is something he has got to do and is a lot of what you saw in today’s ad," Duffy said Friday.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that in the current political climate in Arkansas, "you have a hard time being too conservative." He said the Bloomberg attack could be a godsend for Pryor.
"There is nothing better (for Pryor) than being able to air an ad where he can attack President Obama and the liberal mayor of New York City at the same time," Sabato said.
Pryor is now the first Democratic Senate candidate to air a TV ad in advance of next year’s election. In an interview Friday with the Arkansas News Bureau, Pryor said he had to move quickly.
"Ideally, what I would do is really focus on my job as senator, and then when election year finally rolled around we would get into election mode," he said. "But these outside groups are already spending a lot of money in the state. It’s like a guy in the elevator told me yesterday: He said, ‘I’m ready for you to fight back.’"
Pryor said he feels good about the race.
"I’m very comfortable where I am," he said. "I think I’m representing Arkansas. When people know how I really voted and they don’t listen to all the spin but they really see the facts, people really appreciate where I’ve been for the last 10 years on all these votes. I’m going to work very hard in the 2014 re-election to remind people what I’ve really done, what my real record is."
Pryor said being under fire from both the right and the left "makes me feel like I’m doing something right."
"That’s the problem with politics today," he said. "We live in this left vs. right paradigm. That’s not the way America is. That’s not the way Arkansas is. It’s no wonder that people are so disenchanted with Washington right now, because Washington is into this red vs. blue thing that’s total dead-end politics for the country, and the country recognizes that. I think Arkansas recognizes that."
Reporter Peter Urban in the Stephens Washington Bureau contributed to this report.