Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., has had a target on his back since November 2010.
That’s when his home-state colleague, Democrat Blanche Lincoln, lost her bid for a third term by 21 points to then-Rep. John Boozman, a Republican.
Today, it’s impossible to evaluate his re-election chances next year without drawing comparisons to Lincoln’s double-digit defeat. And it’s quite a turn of affairs for Pryor, who won re-election in 2008 by 60 points.
At least some of his vulnerability will be based on his Republican opponent. He doesn’t have one yet, but the GOP hopes freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a rising star in the party, will challenge him.
The incumbent won’t be weighed down by some of the baggage that ultimately felled Lincoln. But there are enough similarities to make this a highly targeted seat for Republicans and one of the most closely watched races of the cycle.
Here are six comparisons between 2010 and 2014 that will ultimately decide Pryor’s fate:
1. Pryor does not have a primary (yet).
At the moment, there is no indication that Pryor will face anything close to the primary challenge that damaged Lincoln in 2010. Given the atmospherics, Lincoln was unlikely to win re-election anyway. But she was forced to spend some $9 million to defeat then-Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a Democratic primary and a runoff.
Pryor will likely avoid that mess. He’s in a better position than Lincoln to sock away funds for the general — except for some early advertising his campaign will undoubtedly launch.
2. Pryor maintains a stronger brand.
Just one month into 2010, Lincoln’s approval rating in a Democratic firm’s public poll registered at a dismal 27 percent. Lincoln’s troubles at home stemmed from her own unpopularity, her lack of visibility in the state and her ties to national Democrats.
And that was just on the right. After refusing to support a bill that would make it easier for unions to assemble, labor organizations spent millions against Lincoln through the runoff.
Pryor boasts a stronger personal brand, thanks in part to his father, who served as governor and represented the state in the Senate and House. This could allow him to break through an electoral ceiling another Democrat might face here.
3. It’s not 2010 — at least not yet.
President Barack Obama’s first midterm was historically bad for his party and swept out incumbents in states and districts they had won for years. Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven seats in the Senate.
This month, multiple controversies have overwhelmed the White House. But at this early point in the cycle, there’s no evidence that 2014 will offer wave conditions for the GOP. Of course, things can change.
1. Arkansas continues to trend Republican.
Once a stronghold for Democrats, Arkansas is trending decidedly to the GOP. As recently as 2010, the party held both Senate seats, three of four House seats and controlled both houses of the state legislature.
Two election cycles later, Republicans now control the state legislature and Pryor is the last remaining Democrat in the delegation.
The party’s presidential vote in the state has also been on a decline. It has steadily dropped from Al Gore’s 46 percent in 2000 to Obama’s 37 percent in 2012. If voters relate supporting Pryor to a vote in favor of Obama, he’ll likely lose.
2. Both senators took controversial votes.
Republicans hope to make Pryor’s support for the Affordable Care Act an issue again in 2014, when key provisions of the law will be implemented. It hurt Lincoln in 2010 and may be a negative again for Pryor.
His vote against expanded background checks on gun purchases wasn’t necessarily unpopular with Democrats in Arkansas, but it invited the ire of some national Democratic donors and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor’s pro-gun-control super PAC started expending resources in the state on Friday, spending $350,000 on airtime there to target Pryor.
3. Outside groups will target the race.
Most of the outside spending against Lincoln came in the primary. But Pryor, who has already been hit on the airwaves and in mailboxes, is likely to be a top target through the general election.
Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund have already combined to spend more than $260,000 in independent expenditures on direct mail, radio and television ads that attack Pryor for supporting Obama’s agenda. They also released a poll in March showing Pryor trailing Cotton by 8 points.