Democrat Mark Pryor struggles to hold Senate seat in Arkansas

Republican Congressman Tom Cotton greets supporters during a fund-raising event in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Cotton is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor in the November election. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Republican Congressman Tom Cotton greets supporters during a fund-raising event in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Cotton is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor in the November election. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) AP

Jay Gadberry has always voted for Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, despite his own moderately conservative leanings.

After all, the two attended college together. Pryor even flew back to Arkansas when Gadberry’s oldest daughter was killed in a car accident a few years ago. “There’s no better guy than Mark Pryor,” said Gadberry, the president of a wealth management company in Little Rock.

Yet this year Gadberry plans to vote for Pryor’s Republican opponent, freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, because he’s fed up with the federal government, including its new health care law, which he says is “decimating” the economy.

Frustrated voters such as Gadberry are the reason that Pryor, an affable 12-year incumbent who’s the heir to an Arkansas political dynasty, is fighting a tough re-election battle in one of the closest contests in the nation.

The race is one of a half-dozen or so tossups where senators are in danger of losing their seats as disgruntled Americans blame Washington, the Democratic Party and, most especially, its leader, President Barack Obama, for a slew of economic woes and foreign policy crises.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to wrest control of the Senate and, as a result, both chambers of Congress. They hope to pick up open seats while defeating incumbents in states turning increasingly red where Obama lost in 2012, including Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina and Louisiana. One prominent political analyst dubbed Pryor the most vulnerable senator in the nation.

Cotton’s strategy is simple: tying Pryor to an unpopular president in TV ads, news releases and campaign appearances on issues that range from jobs and immigration to Iraq and the fatal 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.

“Mark Pryor has been a loyal vote for the Obama administration,” Cotton, 37, said at a recent Little Rock news conference, a familiar line to anyone following his campaign. “He’s voted with Barack Obama 93 percent of the time.”

Cotton edges over Pryor by 2.3 percentage points, according to a compilation of polls from the last year by the RealClearPolitics website.

Yet Pryor, 51, remains competitive, despite a national mood unfavorable to him in a state that’s trending Republican.

“A lot of things are going against him,” said Jay Barth, a politics professor at Hendrix College, a liberal arts school outside Little Rock. “The fact that he’s still in the game is an accomplishment.”

At a recent event in a Republican-leaning suburb of Little Rock, Pryor, who successfully fought a rare form of cancer in his left leg, received a warm reception while serving as celebrity waiter at a pizzeria as part of an American Cancer Society fundraiser.

“Don’t believe everything you see on TV,” Pryor said repeatedly as he passed out buffalo chicken and chocolate chip pizza slices.

“I’m voting for you,” Jean Ann Moles, a retired librarian at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences from Benton, told Pryor as he walked by.

After Pryor stepped away, Moles explained her support. “I guess I’m hoping a lot of his dad is in him,” she said.

Barth and other observers attribute Pryor’s competitive standing to his father, David Pryor, a popular former governor and senator, as well as to an independent streak and a surprisingly aggressive campaign that attacked Cotton early, criticizing him as “reckless” in his views.

Pryor portrays himself as an independent senator who tries to broker compromises and feels free to break with his party – and his president. He helped work out one deal over judicial nominees in 2005 and another that rewrote consumer-safety regulations in 2008.

“It’s a very independent-minded state,” Pryor said in a brief interview, declining to respond to criticism.

He did vote for some of Obama’s high-profile priorities: the economic stimulus package, the Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul legislation and, of course, the health care law. But he also voted against expanding background checks for gun purchases and criticized the administration for its proposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

Little Rock lawyer Ed Adcock said he’d almost abandoned Pryor when the senator voted against background checks last year but that he didn’t like the alternative. “Tom Cotton is a right-wing zealot who scares me, who would do a great deal of harm,” he said.

The president is unlikely to campaign for Pryor so as to not hurt him in the polls, but the senator stood alongside Obama in May – his first trip to Arkansas as president – as he toured the site of a series of devastating tornadoes that killed more than a dozen people. Instead, Pryor has appeared with former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Mike Beebe, one of the most popular governors in the nation, and his father.

There are some signs that Cotton’s strategy of tying Pryor to Obama is working, however.

Len Sullivan, who teaches music at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said he voted for Democrats and Republicans – he voted for Pryor’s father – but planned to vote for Cotton in part because of the younger Pryor’s record.

“He voted consistently with Obama,” Sullivan said, while working on his laptop at a downtown Little Rock coffee shop. “Mark Pryor is the one who has been a yes man.”

Democrats counter by portraying Cotton as “irresponsible” for voting against disaster aid, reducing student loans and the farm bill, which outlines agriculture and food policy, and wanting to cut benefits for Social Security and Medicare recipients.

Cotton, an up-and-coming tea party freshman who represents a largely rural swath of the state, served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s conservative on social issues and opposes most new government spending.

His background is attractive, but in a state where voters value retail politics, he’s disappointed some. “His personal skills aren’t what Arkansans expect,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas who’s the director of the Arkansas Poll.

Still, the state is trending redder, particularly in its view of national politics.

The last Democratic president to win Arkansas was native son Bill Clinton. Obama lost by nearly 20 points in 2008 and 24 points in 2012.

“Pryor is a Southern Democrat,” said Terry Benham, a Republican political strategist with Impact Management Group. “And life is pretty tough for a Southern Democrat nowadays.”