In the face of polls showing Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) leading Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) in the Arkansas Senate race the Republican favorite and presumptive nominee is being forced to be positive —really positive.
After months of negative attacks either from Pryor’s camp or Cotton and his supporters the Republican congressman needs to raise his favorability numbers. So Cotton is moving away from trying to convince voters how terrible Pryor is and, instead, is focusing more and more on his own appeal to Arkansans.
“I don’t think that you can win the election solely on anti-Pryor votes,” Rex Nelson, a former campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) told TPM. “There have to be some pro-Cotton votes at some point along the line and I think he’s trying to flag his pro-Cotton bona fides now whereas the early part of the campaign was trying to build up the anti-Pryor negatives.”
Over the past month poll after poll has shown Pryor leading Cotton and three of those polls have shown the incumbent senator with a double-digit advantage over the first-term congressman. What’s worse, a number of polls have found Cotton’s favorability rating stuck down between 30 percent and 40 percent. Cotton’s less-than-ideal favorables as well as Pryor’s lead is likely because of the negative tone of the race so far and how well Pryor’s been able to define Cotton through attack ads focusing on Cotton’s Farm Bill vote and preferred changes to entitlement programs.
“I think it’s to a degree the Cotton campaign allowing themselves to be defined by the contrast advertising and this idea that he’s this unknown character who doesn’t have the Arkansas belief system,” Republican strategist Bill Vickery told TPM. “Kind of this idea of “who is Tom Cotton? We don’t really know him.'”
Cotton’s new approach is to highlight his background and Arkansas roots. A recent upbeat ad featured Cotton’s Army drill sergeant. Another ad, released earlier this month, showed Cotton speaking directly into the camera about his father.
“I owe my dad a lot,” Cotton said in the ad, while his dad hovers in the background. “He gave me a good name, a duty to country, a lot of commonsense. Dad said ‘don’t spent what you don’t have. Stand on principle, even if you have to stand alone.”
That ad was sort of a sequel to one the first-term congressman released about his mom in 2013. Early on in the 2014 election cycle Pryor was seen as one of the most vulnerable lawmakers up for reelection but the two-term senator has proven to be a tougher opponent than Cotton’s campaign thought thanks to his political lineage (his father, David Pryor, was governor and U.S. senator from Arkansas) as well as his decision to angle himself as an “extreme moderate” in the words of The Washington Post.
“I think that the Cotton folks came up with more of an obstacle than they expected,” University of Arkansas political scientist Janine Parry said. “So you’re seeing them try a different approach.”
On Tuesday Cotton’s campaign made a move to head off the narrative that he was in deep trouble against Pryor, releasing an internal poll showing him essentially tied with Pryor, a contrast from a recent NBC News-Marist poll showing him trailing 51 percent to 40 percent.
Cotton’s campaign did not return requests for comment on the race.
Cotton’s big problems right now, according to Hendrix College political scientist Jay Barth, who helps conduct the Talk Business/Hendrix College poll, are first that Pryor’s attacks have helped Cotton keep favorable/unfavorable ratings in the 30-40 percent range. Beyond that though, Pryor has the advantage of being better known throughout the state. As a first term congressman, many voters just don’t know who Cotton is yet.
“Many voters in [the] state simply don’t know who he is since he’s only been in office a brief time and didn’t have much history with the state,” Barth told TPM in an email. “The fact that his favorables are 38/39 shows the Pryor camp has done a good job of defining him.”