Republican Tom Cotton is running for U.S. Senate.

That announcement is what drove hundreds of supporters to Dardanelle on August 6. That announcement is also what set the GOP dominoes into motion, and compelled Lt. Governor Mark Darr (R) to forgo his re-election bid and instead run to replace Cotton in Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District.

Arkansas House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman (R-Hot Springs) followed suit one day later.

Darr’s announcement, in turn, prompted State Representative Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) into running for the Lt. Governor’s spot in the middle of his second term.

For the most part, Republicans see all three as strong candidates heading into mid-term elections, and one would assume the dominoes aren’t done falling just yet.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the “Cotton Effect,” especially for Republicans, all of whom hope – and many expect – to continue riding 2010’s and 2012’s conservative wave through 2014. To many, election night should look something like this:

Republican to Senate. Republican to Congress. Republican to the Governor’s office. Republican to the Lt. Governor’s office. More Republican seats in the state legislature.

But what about the other side of the “Cotton Effect”? What if Republicans lose?

There’s no arguing the fact that Cotton is certainly the candidate generating the most excitement right now. In fact, the excitement surrounding Cotton’s bid is the most the Arkansas Republican Party has seen in some time. He has an incredible resume, and his fundraising ability is impressive as we first saw in 2012.

But his opponent, Senator Mark Pryor (D), is no slouch. He’s a veteran of Arkansas politics. It’s important to remember that before he was elected to two terms in the U.S. Senate, Pryor served in the state legislature and as attorney general from 1999 to 2003.

He knows how to campaign. He also has money and knows where to get it. His father, David Pryor, is a former Arkansas governor and U.S. Senator, and his relationships with the Clintons and current Gov. Mike Beebe are strong. His campaign will no doubt benefit from those factors alone.

On top of this, Pryor is playing a different ballgame as of late. Instead of running from Obamacare, he’s applauding it. Well, parts of it anyway.

“Let me say on the front end: the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect. We need to go in and reform it and fix it,” said Pryor recently to members of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce when asked if he regretted his vote for the Affordable Care Act. “I came to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act was the right thing for Arkansas. I think you can look and see it’s already starting to work, it is working.”

“This bill isn’t killing jobs, this bill is creating jobs,” he also said.

This is a bold and dangerous strategy for Pryor. It won’t be easy, and his messaging will be key. But if he manages to explain that at least parts of the president’s health care law are good and necessary, like health insurance for pre-existing conditions, it might just work (or at least not hurt him as badly).

On the flip side, Cotton hasn’t been in Congress very long, but he’s had enough controversial votes in the short time span to carry an opponent’s campaign.

What if Cotton’s controversial House votes turn off independents? What if those votes end up alienating key groups in the state?

Pryor has already released ads attacking the freshman for voting against women’s rights, the farm bill, and lowering student loan interest rates, among others. If the message sticks, Cotton will be in for a big time fight. But it has to stick.

Darr, on the other hand, is perhaps taking the biggest gamble. No one knew who the now lieutenant governor was before 2010. He benefitted from a wave election. His opponent, Shane Broadway, now interim director of Arkansas’s Department of Higher Education, was more qualified for the office.

Now, instead of enjoying the support and protection most incumbents do, the relatively new Arkansas politico has decided to jump into what very well could be a crowded primary in the Fourth.

It’s natural to believe he has the edge over Westerman in name ID alone, but Westerman is extremely conservative and already lives – and has lived – in the district he’s running in. Darr recently moved his family to the district from Springdale, which is located in Congressman Steve Womack’s Third District.

If former Fourth District candidate Beth Anne Rankin decides to run, which she’s “seriously considering,” her name ID in the district could give Darr trouble as well. She’s asked for their votes before, and they’ve given them to her as her primary win in 2010 showed. She’s well liked, and her connections run deep (see Mike Huckabee). That’s just the primary.

If Darr loses this election, even if a Republican wins, his decision to run leaves the Lt. Governor’s office up for grabs with nothing to show for it.

Collins is in a similar situation running for Lt. Governor.

“Rep. Collins movement into the Lt. Governor’s race opens his current house seat and I am certain that we can win that seat back for Democrats,” said Tyler Clark, chairman of the Washington County Democrats.

The Republican currently holds a “swing seat” in the House that Democrats would certainly like to reclaim.

Democrat John Burkhalter, a current Arkansas Highway Commissioner, is a strong opponent for the number two spot, and his apparent alliance with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross should help further boost his name ID across the state. Collins will also face some scrutiny over his support of the state’s “Private Option” health care, which uses federal Medicaid dollars to fund private health insurance for low income Arkansans.

“I’m happy to share a lot of numbers with folks, I’m happy to share a lot of conservative principles with people for why I chose to vote for the ‘private option’,” said Collins in an interview with KNWA-TV on Wednesday. “Given the reality that we live with and the two options that we have for dealing with it, I believe the ‘private option’ is the superior choice, although I understand that not everybody agrees with me, and I respect that.”

A Collins’ loss would sting, but a Democratic win in his current state house district could be an even bigger blow – possibly sending the GOP’s slim control of the House back to the Democrats.

“This political hopscotch and jockeying for position is something that we’ve been anticipating for a long time,” added Clark, who believes Democrats are in the perfect position, contrary to popular belief, to recapture what they’ve lost over the last few elections.

David Ray, exiting communications director with the Republican Party of Arkansas, strongly disagrees.

“We heard these same grandiose proclamations from Democrats in 2012 when they clung to the line that they would maintain a majority in the House of Representatives,” said Ray via email Thursday. “The problem (for them) is that Arkansas voters don’t agree with them on the issues. That’s why we continue winning elections up and down the ballot.”

Ray believes Republicans have a “strong chance” of gaining additional State House seats in the 2014 cycle, pointing out that most of those open seats are in “strongly Republican” areas. Ray says Democratic incumbents are more vulnerable, and Collins sees the possible jump to Lt. Governor as an opportunity to continue the legislature’s conservative approach to the state.

“As Lieutenant Governor, I’ll have a better platform to communicate and build support for conservative policies,” stated Collins in a news release Wednesday morning. “Also, my leadership experience and relationships in the legislature have prepared me to work closely with my friends in the House and Senate to craft and enact conservative legislation in Arkansas.”

However, Clark is confident that the Arkansas legislature will go blue due to what he sees as unfulfilled promises and he points to Collins’ leadership as a weapon for Democrats.

“The republican majority, led in part by Charlie Collins, jeopardized Arkansas’ balanced budget and his promise of job creation never materialized,” said Clark, “House district 84 deserves a representative who will be responsive to the needs of their constituency and fulfill promises.”

Bottom line: Republicans are in a great position heading into 2014. They no doubt hold momentum at the moment, but Democrats are ready to fight, and they’re desperate to win.

For what it’s worth, the “Cotton Effect” has at least presented them with opportunities to do just that, as Clark points out.

“The next 446 days will certainly be interesting,” he said.

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J.R. Davis

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