Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, we’ve asked experts from the ten states with competitive Senate races to answer six questions in a spotlight on each race, providing perspective on the dynamics in the state as we head toward Election Day. In this post, Jay Barth looks at the key issues in the Arkansas Senate race between Senator Mark Pryor and Congressman Tom Cotton.
1. What have been the three key issues in this year’s Senate race?
The major issues in this year’s race have been Senator Pryor’s support for President Obama generally and Obamacare specifically, Congressman Cotton’s voting record that has been portrayed as out of the mainstream (specifics include his votes against the Farm Bill, the Violence Against Women Act, etc.), seniors issues, and, this being Arkansas, the personal stories and personalities of the candidates.
2. How have the candidates handled these issues and which candidate has been the strongest on those issues?
I think that on the first two sets of issues, the candidates are pretty much at a draw. Each has successfully portrayed his opponent as an Obama supporter or an “extremist.” Pryor has had an advantage in the personality department although Cotton has successfully portrayed his biography in his advertising. Cotton does seem to be succeeding in issues related to seniors based on new polling showing him winning voters 65 and older.
3. Have any other issues resonated specifically with key demographic groups or interests and what are the implications for the race?
Pryor has clearly campaigned to female voters, not just on VAWA but on other workplace issues that tend to resonate with women voters, and has also worked hard to emphasize Cotton’s Farm Bill vote with voters tied to the agricultural industry.
4. How have outside surrogates, SuperPACs, or other outside spending played a role in the race?
Outside interests have mattered enormously. The DSCC and the Democratic Senate superPAC have been crucial to supporting Pryor as have groups like the National Education Association. Outside groups, especially the Fund for American Prosperity superPAC, has been even more important for Cotton. The Cotton side has spent significantly more during the campaign, but the Pryor camp has run nearly as many ads because there has been more candidate spending on the Democratic side. A series of Republican surrogates have come in for Cotton, while Bill Clinton has been the most crucial surrogate for Pryor (along with Pryor’s father who remains popular in the state).
5. Midterms are often characterized by low turnout. What are your expectations about voter apathy/engagement in this race?
Arkansas has not had a competitive statewide race since 2002. Therefore, contemporary American politics that emphasizes field work and big data has bypassed Arkansas. The Democrats, however, have built a major field operation across the state and there are signs this operation may skew the electorate in a manner that helps close the polling gap.
6. National media attention to this Senate race has been substantial. What important aspects have the media overlooked that may surprise outside observers on Election Day.
Arkansas is a state that, historically, has been somewhat immune from national trends. In 2002, for instance, a cycle that was quite bad for national Democrats, Mark Pryor was able to easily defeat an incumbent Republican Senator. That disconnect from national trends may still be somewhat true in 2014, though certainly not to the same degree as a few years ago.