WASHINGTON — In a race that many had expected would-be nail biter, Republican challenger Tom Cotton easily defeated two-term Sen. Mark Pryor by a 17 point margin — a wider gap than the 10-point victory claimed by Sen. Dick Durbin in solidly Democratic Illinois.
“Team Cotton ran a better campaign. And at the end of the day, the candidate, the message and the campaign matters,” said David Ray, a spokesman for the Cotton campaign.
Cotton, 37, focused his campaign on making the midterm contest a referendum on President Barack Obama whose favorability rating has sunk to 29 percent in Arkansas, according to the latest Gallup Poll.
In announcing his candidacy 15 months ago in his hometown of Dardanelle, Cotton painted Pryor as an Obama supporter who cast a key vote in favor of Obamacare. “Mark Pryor doesn’t put Arkansas first anymore. Mark Pryor puts Barack Obama first,” he said.
That same day, Pryor called the Affordable Healthcare Act an “amazing success” in an interview in Rogers by KHOG-TV.
Cotton media consultant Brad Todd said that day was the campaign in a nutshell.
“That comment (from Sen. Pryor) was an indication he had made the decision not to distance himself from Obamacare,” Todd said. “Our strategy was strength. We felt Tom demonstrated he had the strength to do hard things in Iraq and in Washington. Meanwhile, Senator Pryor had not demonstrated any strength in standing up to President Obama. That was the main contract that we drove home.”
Pryor, 51, had tried to distance himself from Obama, noting that he has been rated one of the most independent Democrats in the Senate. He also countered that Cotton’s “my way or the highway” attitude added to the partisan gridlock in Washington during his first term in Congress. And, he rapped Cotton as a conservative extremist, pointing to votes against a farm bill, disaster relief and college loans as being against the best interest of Arkansas. Instead, those votes were cast to please his wealthy “billionaire” backers, Pryor contended.
Cotton’s opposition to those programs did align him with the views of the Club for Growth, Heritage Foundation and other groups that supported his candidacy. He, in fact, missed the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival in favor of a California seminar sponsored by the Koch Brothers. At that retreat, Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips praised Cotton for his 100 percent voting record with the conservative group.
“This guy is running for the Senate (while) actually voting with 61 Republicans in the House to vote against the farm bill — in Arkansas,” Phillips said to applause. Americans for Prosperity spent $1.6 million on broadcast advertisements in support of Cotton.
Cotton’s campaign pollster Wes Anderson said the effort to paint Cotton as a puppet of Republican big business elites was a flop largely because of Cotton’s personal biography. He grew up on a farm to a middle-class family and later quit a law practice to enlist in the infantry and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ray noted that Cotton was also a tireless campaigner, who put in many hours meeting and greeting voters across the state. And, he said voters were not interested in how the campaigns are funded so much as they care about what the candidate will do for their pocketbook.
“On Election Day, we won Bradley County with a majority of the vote. And, that’s a county Republicans don’t often win,” Ray said.
Jonathan Cowan, who heads the centrist Democrat think tank Third Way, agreed that it was a mistake for Pryor and other moderate Democrats to focus on the Koch Brothers.
“Americans want middle-class prosperity. They do not see it as very much connected to some lengthy conversation about billionaires,” he said during an appearance on C-Span. “Candidates like Mark Pryor from Arkansas, even though he has been there forever — the midterm elections are about raising the interest level of the voting populace, and the Democrats did nothing to do that.”
Democratic strategist Robert Weiner said another major mistake was in not embracing the Democratic brand. The national party, he said, should have overrun television with ads trumpeting Democratic accomplishments in reducing unemployment which is down from 10 percent to 5.9 percent since Obama took office.
The failure to deliver that message, he said, created a vacuum that allowed Republicans to step in and cast Obama as inept and the economy in shambles.
Cotton was also able to compete with Pryor when it came to fundraising. Although Pryor had an early advantage, having stockpiled contributions ahead of the 2014 election cycle, Cotton ended up with a large enough treasury to keep advertising. Both sides spent about $5.9 million on television ads, according to Ray.
The final tab for the Senate campaign will likely top $62 million, with nearly $40 million paid for by independent groups. Overall, Cotton and his supporters are expected to spend $32 million and Pryor and his supporters $30 million.
Much of the campaign funds have been sunk into advertising. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that $29 million was spent to air 65,400 television ads on Arkansas broadcast stations.