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Mark Pryor: Still This Cycle’s Most Vulnerable Senator

Mark Pryor, a Democratic senator from Arkansas, is seeking re-election in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Mark Pryor, a Democratic senator from Arkansas, is seeking re-election in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

More than a year ago, I called Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., this cycle’s most vulnerable senator . That hasn’t changed.  

The longer I do this, the more transparent I try to be about my thinking about each race. So, this column sets out my view of the Arkansas Senate race, which has been different from the thinking of many.  

The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call, rates it as a Tossup/Tilts Republican contest , while many (probably most) others now see the race as a pure tossup, or possibly even view Pryor having a small advantage.  

Those who see Pryor in good shape point to two public polls conducted during the spring showing the Democrat holding a significant lead over his challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, the GOP nominee.  

An NBC News/Marist poll conducted from April 30 to May 4, showed Pryor leading by double digits, 51 percent to 40 percent. That followed an April 8-15 New York Times/Kaiser Foundation survey that found Pryor with a 10-point lead, 46 percent to 36 percent.  

Those results, and the results of other surveys showing a tight race but with Pryor leading, has led some to remark that Cotton is weak, that Arkansas is different than other Deep South states, or that Pryor can survive even in a bad year because of his moderate record and the state’s affection for his father, David Pryor, a former governor and senator.  

For example, National Journal’s Ron Fournier called Cotton “an overrated candidate ,” adding that “he is not a strong retail politician in a state that values handshake-to-handshake combat.”  

My own assessment of Cotton is a bit different. While he was a little stiff when I interviewed him, I found him thoughtful and personable. He certainly isn’t a back-slapper, but back-slapping probably isn’t as important these days as it once was.  

I’m not at all sure that I would call Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a great retail politician, and yet he annihilated the very personable Blanche Lincoln in 2010. Party and ideology have become more important these days than they once were.  

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Pryor and Lincoln started their re-election in the same place. Lincoln had a primary, her voting record made her more vulnerable from the start, and she was not in nearly as good shape in polling as Pryor is this cycle.  

Polls, including early polls, certainly matter to me. But, since I am concerned with the November outcome and not with where a race is at any given point in an election cycle, my ratings are based on more than the latest public polling.  

At this point in an election cycle, I still have a working assumption about how the race will end up. That assumption is based on an assessment of the candidates, the dynamics of the particular election cycle and the past performance of candidates (and parties) in the state.  

If the NBC/Marist and New York Times/Kaiser Foundation polls show Cotton trailing Pryor badly and the senator at or near 50 percent of the vote in the fall, and if they are supported by other polls, I’ll certainly move the Arkansas race out of its current category and into one that suggests better prospects for Pryor.  

But at this point in the cycle, I’m simply not convinced that voters in Arkansas are evaluating the contest the same way that they will evaluate it in the fall, so I remain skeptical of the senator’s prospects. (I should note that I have used this approach for years, and there have been occasions when early poll numbers did and did not end up having predictive value.)  

In my view, the fundamentals favor Pryor’s opponent so heavily that I would need dramatic new information to move the race at this point toward the incumbent in my ratings. President Barack Obama drew just 37 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2012, so Pryor would need to run at least 13 points ahead of the president to win re-election later this year. That’s possible but incredibly difficult.  

At the moment, the president’s job approval isn’t merely poor in the state; it’s horrible (35 percent in a recent Public Opinion Strategies survey). Democratic performance in federal races in Arkansas hasn’t been merely bad; it has been horrendous. The president isn’t merely involved in the current political narrative; he is at the center of it — with the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, his proposed carbon regulations, and a very controversial prisoner swap that developed after yet another Susan E. Rice screw-up.  

Not all is bad for the president, of course. Recent job numbers are good, and there is a sense among many economists that the economy finally is picking up steam.  

The question, of course, is whether voters believe that and feel more optimistic about the future. So far, there is little evidence of that.  

Three recent polls — by GOP firms POS and OnMessage, Inc., and a third by Rasmussen — show Cotton ahead and Pryor sitting in the low 40s. Some will discount those surveys because of their partisan nature, and because Republican polls were not as accurate as Democratic ones in 2012. But in 2010, GOP polls were more accurate than Democratic surveys, and some partisan polls are better than some non-partisan ones.  

With public polling divided and the political environment strongly favoring Republicans in so-called red states, early polls showing Pryor with a lead aren’t enough to force me to change my expectations about the trajectory of the race. Not yet, at least.

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