First-Term Congressman Aims to Topple Pryor Dynasty in Arkansas

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."

Changing dynamics

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.

Central casting

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.

Dividing lines

Pryor's voting record earned him a career 19.8 American Conservative Union rating, while Cotton checks in at 92 percent. Cotton led Pryor by 3 percent in the Real Clear Politics polling average in early August.

In addition, Cotton's southern Arkansas district is a swing area of the state where experts believe Democrats must over-perform to win. This may be a tall order for Pryor, who must run not only against the likable Cotton but also the unpopularity of Obama.

Pryor's website argues that the senator “ignores partisan politics to do his very best for the people of Arkansas.”

"Instead of ‘politics as usual,’ Mark works for responsible, bipartisan solutions that secure the future of our nation for generations to come while keeping our commitments to our seniors and veterans,” his campaign states. “With Mark Pryor, ‘Arkansas Comes First.’”

Because Arkansas traditionally ranks near the bottom in per capita income, look for economics to be a hot issue for Cotton. Immigration policy also is likely to be a factor. Arkansas is only one state away from the border, and major employers such as Tyson are labor-intensive. However, Murphy from the NRSC advises voters to focus in on the one factor that likely will decide the race.

"The big issue is Obamacare and Barack Obama's liberal agenda," he said. "Only 37 percent of Arkansans voted for Obama in 2012, and nothing has changed since then. That is one big reason why Pryor has been trailing in most polls."

David Ray, a spokesman for Cotton, agreed: “For the last six years, Sen. Pryor has carried the water for big labor, rubber-stamped President Obama’s health-care demands and taxed and regulated businesses to death. We can do better by electing Tom Cotton, who will work to lower taxes, rein in spending, and start over on true health-care reform.”