Two Senate candidates faced off last week in a series of debates in the Arkansas race – a high-profile contest many consider key for Republicans’ efforts to win a majority in the upper chamber.
The Senate race in Arkansas is a tight one, with Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, a tea party challenger, holding a narrow lead on incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.
Pryor has served in the Senate since 2003 and is running for his third term, while Cotton is a relative newcomer to Washington, beginning his term in 2013.
The race is one of the most expensive in the nation, with both candidates and outside groups spending nearly $36 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Cotton’s campaign has emphasized Pryor’s support for the Affordable Care Act. Both the ACA and President Obama are widely unpopular in Arkansas, where Mitt Romney easily won the 2012 presidential election.
Unlike many Democrats up for re-election, Pryor has not shied away from his support for the president’s signature law. In August, the Arkansas senator released an ad boasting about his vote in favor of Obamacare.
In their Oct. 13 debate, Cotton repeatedly tied Pryor to Obama and his policies. Pryor, on the other hand, attacked Cotton for being beholden to big-money interests.
“Time and time again, Mark Pryor has rubber-stamped Barack Obama’s big government agenda,” Cotton said.
Pryor retorted that he listens to the people of Arkansas and not to “out-of-state billionaires.” He slammed Cotton for attending a fundraiser organized by Charles and David Koch in California, saying the congressman will do anything to “get their money to win this race.”
“They are investing in Tom Cotton just like they would invest in a company. Why? They want to get a payback on their investment, and they will,” Pryor said. “If he’s elected to the Senate, they will get six years of paydays.”
The two candidates also traded barbs on foreign policy.
Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, said troops should not be ruled out as an option in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
“No serious leader, certainly no commander in chief, would ever take any option off the table, including boots on the ground,” Cotton said. “Because the Islamic State certainly isn’t taking the option off the table.”
He criticized the president for lacking an effective military strategy and making the U.S. look “weak and soft in the world,” adding that Pryor has backed Obama’s “foreign policy of weakness, hesitation, and indecision.”
Pryor accused Cotton of being more interested in spending money on nation building abroad than on domestic needs.
“He’s voted to do things like spend billions of dollars in places like Afghanistan for schools and roads and hospitals. But he’s voted to cut schools, roads and hospitals here in Arkansas,” Pryor said.
Cotton’s critics have focused on his voting record on an array of issues, including the Violence Against Women Act, disaster aid, and the farm bill – the latter playing a prominent role in Arkansas because of its large agricultural sector.
Last year, Cotton and other conservative Republicans in the House passed a farm bill that did not include funding for food stamps in attempt to have the two programs be dealt with separately. Every farm bill has included food stamps since 1973, representing a deal between rural and urban lawmakers that dates back to the Great Depression.
Congress eventually passed a traditional farm bill in February. Cotton was the only member of the Arkansas delegation to vote against the bipartisan legislation.
Cotton defended his vote against the final version of the farm bill, saying it was a “bad deal” because the bill increased spending while Arkansas farmers only get “one half of one percent of the benefits.”
“We need a Farm Bill that’s truly focused on the needs of farmers. And I voted for one. But we also need a food stamp bill that’s focused on getting people the help they need without the waste and abuse with the institutionalized fraud that you see from a lot of liberal states,” Cotton said.
Pryor, who spoke about his personal experience as a cancer survivor, said he was open to changes to Obamacare that do not make it difficult for people with pre-existing conditions to get health insurance.
“We needed to put patients back in charge of their healthcare,” Pryor said. “I do support changing the law, I do, but I don’t want to go back to those days.”
The candidates squared off again Tuesday evening in the last of two televised debates, where they repeated familiar lines of attack against one another.
When asked what would happen to workers who have lost their employer-provided insurance, Cotton avoided answering the question directly and said these people would not have lost their insurance in the first place if “Mark Pryor and Barack Obama did not keep their promise.”
“They want their health insurance,” he said. “They are feeling the pain and stress of losing their insurance and trying to find a better option when they had an exact plan that suited their needs.”
Pryor said that these workers now have access to health insurance thanks to Arkansas’ “private option.” He also accused Cotton of having no solution for the people with pre-existing conditions receiving insurance under Obamacare, which the House lawmaker has vowed to repeal.
The private option program uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private insurance for low-income people in Arkansas.
Earlier this month, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) campaigned for Cotton. Former President Bill Clinton also returned to his home turf last week on a two-day, four-stop tour to campaign for Democrats, including Pryor.