Arkansas has had its share of political dynasties, first and foremost the Clintons. The Pryor family may run a close second.
David Pryor was a Democratic fixture in the state, serving in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, and as governor. His son, Mark Pryor, now holds the Senate seat he vacated in 1997 and is seeking a third term.
Are Arkansans finally getting Pryor fatigue and ready for a fresh face? If so, few Senate candidates nationwide may be more attractive than Republican challenger Tom Cotton.
“Roll Call just came out with an article that rated Pryor as the second-most-vulnerable senator this year,” said Bill Murphy, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, D.C. “He votes 90 percent of the time with Barack Obama, who is extremely unpopular in the state. Tom Cotton is running a strong race and has a great message that is resonating with Arkansans.”
Cotton, 37, may well be the right candidate in the right place at the right time. Arkansas, once a bedrock state of the solid Democratic South, has been moving steadily to the right. Republicans held just six of 135 state legislative seats in 1978, the year David Pryor first won the Senate. Only one Republican had garnered more than 40 percent in a U.S. Senate race since the early 20th century.
The state remained heavily blue in 2002, when Mark Pryor won his first term against Republican Tim Hutchinson. He ran unopposed in 2008.
Things changed in the Natural State during the watershed election of 2010, when incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her re-election bid by more than 20 points. Two years later, Republicans captured the state General Assembly.
However, Pryor, 51, benefits both from name recognition and incumbency. He earned a law degree from the University of Arkansas and was in private practice for a decade. He was first elected to public office in 1990 as a member of the Arkansas State House of Representatives. In 1998 he was elected state attorney general, followed by his successful Senate run.
Pryor serves on six Senate committees, including the Appropriations Committee. He was recently named chairman of the Subcommittee on Agriculture Appropriations, which gives him leverage in bringing funds to rural parts of Arkansas.
However, a Hollywood casting director could not have found a more compelling opponent than Cotton, a sixth-generation Arkansan who was born and raised on his family’s cattle farm in Yell County. He graduated from Harvard (where he had a class taught by future Sen. Elizabeth Warren) and Harvard Law School.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred during his final year of law school, and he left law after clerking for the U.S. Court of Appeals and a short time in a private law practice to join the U.S. Army. He declined a commission as a military attorney to serve as an infantry officer.
Cotton served nearly five years as an active duty officer and completed combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, he served with the 101st Airborne where he led an infantry platoon in daily combat patrols. While in Afghanistan, he served as the operations officer for a Provincial Reconstruction Team. Between his two combat tours he served as a platoon leader with the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, the unit responsible for military honors funerals.
His military decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Badge and Ranger Tab. After leaving active duty Cotton worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co. before winning election to the U.S. Congress from the Fourth District in 2012.