The 2014 general election is about 16 months away, but that has not stopped the race for U.S. Senate from kicking into high gear even before Tuesday night’s (Aug. 6) announcement from U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Dardanelle) that he is officially entering the race against incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat who has held the seat since 2003.

Pryor answered Cotton’s entry with a likely theme of “extremism” that will dominate the match-up.

“I don’t know who Mr. Cotton’s been voting for, but it hasn’t been for Arkansas. When you vote against student loans and against the farm bill and you vote to cut Medicare and Social Security, you’re not voting for Arkansas, you’re carrying someone else’s water,” Pryor said in a statement on Tuesday.

Dr. Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and director of the Arkansas Poll, said that early spending on attack ads and websites by groups against Cotton and outside PACs airing ads across the state attacking Pryor was unusual, but not without precedence in modern Arkansas political history.

“Both parties came out of the gate real fast in 2002, as well,” she said. “There were records set in terms of spending and ad buys because of the national climate at the time.”

She said what is happening in the 2014 election, even though it is still 2013, all has to do with the current political climate in Arkansas.

CHANGE IN POLITICAL LANDSCAPE
“If the Democrats seem scared, it’s because they are. This all has much less to do with specific candidates as it does with this climate. … There’s polling data to suggest that almost any Republican has a good shot at making a run against Pryor. And then there’s recent election evidence at any level over multiple cycles. To me, that’s more telling. I think that’s the real indicator of a new landscape, and a landscape that’s deeply threatening to Democrats, even a Pryor.”

Parry said the idea of Arkansas going Republican in not only major offices like governor and senate but also in the controlling majorities in the General Assembly shows that Arkansas is no longer the name brand Democrat “with a capital D” and traditionally strong Democratic family names like the Pryors no longer carry the weight that they used to.

“I actually think that the fact that a Pryor is feeling this kind of threat is really emblematic of how dramatically the landscape has changed. It’s not just that he’s a Democrat, but it’s also that he’s a Pryor. If a Pryor feels threatened, that’s telling.”

The threat that Pryor is likely feeling could be seen in his first official campaign ad since multiple news sources revealed that Cotton was officially in the race. The TV ad was a targeted attack on Cotton, a sharp turn from Pryor’s previous campaigns, where he has largely remained positive throughout, evoking the famous “Arkansas First” motto, originally made famous by his father, former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, who held the seat in the Senate from 1979 until 1997. Then-U.S. Rep. Tim Hutchinson won Pryor’s seat, only to serve one term before being defeated by the younger Pryor in 2002.

‘NOT SHAKING IN MY BOOTS’
Washington County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Tyler Clark said unlike others in his party, he is not afraid of a Cotton challenge.

“I’m not like a lot of Democrats. I’m not shaking in my boots,” he said.

Clark said Cotton’s brief time in office and his voting record will make him a weak competitor to Pryor.

“I think it’s ironic that Congressman Cotton will actually run (for Senate) longer than he’s been in office,” he said.

Parry said Cotton’s voting record could pose a challenge, as he has voted the opposite of the Arkansas Congressional delegation, made up of all Republicans with the exception of Pryor, on many issues that have drawn statewide and national attention.

“The student loan vote surprised me that he broke with the delegation. He’ll have to consider any votes that he takes between now and the election,” she said.

Parry said while it is too early to tell how this race will shake out, the momentum is on Cotton’s side, again because of trends locally and nationally.

“People have shown a willingness to vote for Republicans, which is unprecedented in Arkansas politics. (Republicans winning) multiple branches of government, multiple election cycles, at multiple levels of government – that’s what I’ve been looking for for 15 years and now we have all of those three. That’s what makes me think these races will be competitive.”

Cotton’s breaking ranks with his fellow Republican Congressmen didn’t hurt him with endorsements from his peers. Cong. Tim Griffin (R), who has urged Cotton to enter the Senate race for months, introduced Cotton’s father at his announcement on Tuesday night in Dardanelle.

Once rumored to be considering a Senate run, Third District Cong. Steve Womack (R) released a quick statement after Cotton’s decision was official.

“Arkansas’s Senate race is critical to shifting the balance of power in Washington, and Tom Cotton’s hardline, conservative credentials will undoubtedly serve Arkansans well as we fight a crushing debt and an expansive government. I support his candidacy for the U.S. Senate,” Womack said.

COTTON’S VOTING RECORD
Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) whose state house district straddles Cotton’s Fourth Congressional District and Womack’s Third Congressional District, said even with his breaking with the state’s Republican delegation, Cotton’s voting record isn’t a hindrance to his campaign.

“I think it’s what the majority of Arkansans are feeling, maybe not saying, but feeling,” he said. “I think when people understand if they take the opportunity to do their due diligence of understanding why he voted why he voted, I think they will completely understand.”

Democratic Party of Arkansas spokeswoman Candace Martin thinks differently.  The state party communications director gave a stinging rebuke of Cotton, providing a sense of how red-hot the race has already gotten.

“After seven short months in Congress, Arkansans only know Tom Cotton as an arrogant congressman whose blind ambition has hurt women, farmers, students, and seniors,” she said.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas launched a web site on Monday – MeetTomCotton.com – which highlights several controversial votes Cotton has cast related to disaster relief, the farm bill and a recent vote on student loans.

Regarding the vote to allow student loans to be handled by private banks instead of the federal government, Rep. Harris said the “whole purpose for why he did it was because of the economy.”

A statement from Cotton on Aug. 1 explained why he voted against lowering student loan lending rates.

“As students struggle to repay their loans—regardless of the interest rate—taxpayers are on the hook for a $100 billion bailout—a burden hard-working Arkansans shouldn’t have to bear. A better path is to repeal Obamacare, which nationalized the student-loan business, and let Arkansas’s hometown banks work with students and families to finance higher education, just as they do with homes, farms, businesses, and other loans. I’m committed to bringing affordable higher education to every Arkansan and ending the federal-government monopoly on the student-lending business.”

Harris said the reason he was standing with Cotton was because of his stand on conservative issues.

“I’m going to be truthful with you, I have two Congressional representatives, Womack and Cotton, that represent my district and they do vote different sometimes. And I do sometimes see the difference. And I always side with Tom Cotton on those votes. … Womack I’ve disagreed with on several issues. I know Congressman Cotton, I will agree with 100% of the time and I can trust what he does.”

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Ryan Saylor

Ryan Saylor

Ryan Saylor is the Fort Smith metro reporter for The City Wire, a content partner with Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached by email at RSaylor@TheCityWire.com or follow him on Twitter: @TheRyanSaylor.