Editor’s note: This story appears in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas, which you can read online at this link.
It’s a muggy morning on Wednesday, Aug. 7.
Tom Cotton leaves the Chancellor Hotel in Fayetteville in route to his first post-announcement interview at KNWA’s television studios on Dickson Street.
He’s dressed in a similar outfit as he was in Dardanelle the night before when he made his much-hyped and long-expected announcement that he’d run for the U.S. Senate. A blue dress shirt, no tie, blue jeans and cowboy boots, Cotton is ready for a day on the road that will take him across north Arkansas from Springdale to Jonesboro.
The 6:45 am interview lasts four minutes and Cotton is on message – as he always is – that this race is about Mark Pryor and his allegiance to Barack Obama, whose poll numbers have always struggled in conservative Arkansas.
When asked by KNWA anchor J.R. Davis about his quick ascension in Arkansas politics, Cotton counters:
“Some people say I’m a young man in a hurry. With the problems we have, we need someone in a hurry,” he said. “Some people say I haven’t been in Washington long enough, but I’ve been there long enough to know Washington needs to change.”
Cotton is in a hurry to get to Springdale where a crowd of supporters, including many Arkansas GOP legislators, await him at popular political hangout, Neal’s Café, run by State Rep. Micah Neal (R) who as fate would have it was out of town on legislative business that day.
After working the room and giving his standard stump speech of why Mark Pryor should be ousted, Cotton takes a few minutes to eat breakfast and it is a splendid metaphor of the type of person Cotton is and the type of regimented campaign he will run.
A staffer has ordered his breakfast while Cotton was visiting with the crowd. When he’s done shaking hands, Cotton sits down to a bowl of oatmeal, a separate bowl of granola, a cup of raisins on the side, one banana, two eggs over easy, and a tall glass of orange juice. It’s clear that this isn’t the first time Cotton has ordered or eaten this combination of breakfast items. His handlers know his predictable routines.
What is learned about Cotton throughout the day is that he can deliver that campaign speech consistently to the groups he meets with through the rest of his kick-off tour.
Outside of the intense, disciplined, robotic message that voters are bound to associate with Cotton throughout the next 14 months, there is a side of the six-foot five-inch 36-year old that won’t be featured in campaign commercials or political rallies or next year’s inevitable debates.
Cotton is health-conscious, habits that have been with him throughout adulthood and were honed during his service in the U.S. Army. He likes to run to “clear his mind” and has finished 11 marathons in the past. A run by the Arkansas River in Dardanelle or on top of Mt. Nebo is standard fare when he’s back in state. He runs in D.C. when Congress is in session.
For down time, he’s an avid sports fan, particularly baseball and football, although he was a basketball player in high school. He has a soft spot for the St. Louis Cardinals in part due to their former minor league history in Arkansas, and he follows the Boston Red Sox owing to his time at Harvard Law School.
That affiliation also translates to fan loyalty to the New England Patriots and he admits that he’s a Dallas Cowboys fan too on account of Arkansan Jerry Jones.
He has a girlfriend, Anna, who was with him at his campaign kick-off. They’ve been dating since February when they were introduced by mutual friends in D.C. Cotton prefers to keep his personal life “somewhat personal” and the conversation on the subject ends there.
Sen. Mark Pryor starts Thursday morning, Aug. 8, at an early morning TV appearance just like Cotton did the day before.
While Cotton would answer the same question the same way 100 times in a row, Pryor has a much more laid-back style. Your takeaway from his response will be consistent, but Pryor seems to always state his answers in a conversational, unrehearsed fashion. It’s what makes Mark Pryor a Pryor.
Pryor has just answered for the umpteenth time why he supports health care reform, Obamacare, and KARK anchor Matt Mosler uses Pryor’s words about voters being fed up with Washington to suggest that the incumbent Senator is “Washington” owing to his 11 years in federal office.
The exchange goes viral later in the day when partisans seize on the video and circulate it throughout a variety of social media platforms.
In a speech to the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce right after the TV interview, Pryor fields questions for nearly an hour with the state’s business elite. In response to a health care question, Pryor gives his most impassioned defense of the vote to date.
“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,” he tells the group before proceeding to rattle off a litany of good reasons for the law.
He cites closing the donut hole on Medicare; Allowing young adults to stay on parents’ health insurance to age 26; Eliminating pre-existing conditions; Creating quality care rankings for hospitals to create better consumer demand; Rebate checks from insurance companies; and issuing tax credits for small businesses and individuals to have more insurance options.
“Let’s take the good in the law and build on that. They [Republicans] are not offering a solution. They’re just saying, ‘repeal, repeal, repeal.’ What they were saying a year or two ago was ‘repeal and replace,” Pryor says.
It’s his only political path to dealing with the issue that Republicans and Cotton will ride him roughshod on through next year. Pryor, in essence, is not saying the vote was a mistake. He’s not being dismissive by saying he voted for it and asking voters to move on to other issues. His argument is that there are good things in the law that voters appreciate and that Republicans have offered no other alternative except doing away with the good as well as the bad in the law.
Will it work? The argument was well-received by Democrats, but independent voters will be the difference makers in the race. With Election Day over a year away, he certainly has time to win them to his side on the issue, but the strength of the counter-message and the bill’s biggest supporter, Obama, make for difficult headwinds.
Pryor is early to his next appointment that day – a job expansion at Remington Arms ammunition factory in Lonoke. The company is adding a $32 million facility and about 60 jobs that will increase its output of bullets and shotgun shells by about 33%.
An avid hunter, Pryor is looking forward to the event from a sportsman perspective and, of course, in Arkansas it never hurts for a politician to make front-page news promoting responsible gun ownership.
Guns have been prominent in Pryor’s campaign this year as a liberal group led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg attacked the Senator for his vote against the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey background check amendment. Pryor sided with the Grassley amendment, an alternative that he contends did more to close loopholes.
By mid-morning, the sun was already baking the prairie land along Highway 70. Traffic wasn’t as bad as expected and the Senator makes good time to the event arriving early enough to pull over at a local Exxon for a pre-press announcement coke.
Pryor, 50, reviews his staff notes before arriving at Remington and asks a travelling press secretary if it’s all right to not don a coat and tie. It’s an outdoor event and the sweltering heat means there will be plenty of sweat to go along with the jubilation over the jobs announcement.
His decision to go open-collar with slacks looks even smarter as he and a gaggle from the event take an hour-long tour of the Remington factory after the event. It’s 100+ degrees in the building, which makes every kind of ammunition you could buy at your local Wal-Mart.
The plant manager is jokingly asked if a pallet full of boxed bullets in the loading area are the ones the President is accused of hoarding through Homeland Security.
“Somebody’s buying ‘em,” the plant manager jokes back. He says that if plant output tripled, he’s still not sure supply could meet demand.
Pryor is at ease asking questions in the noisy factory and posing for pictures with employees who easily recognize him and ask for a photo. Despite the expectation that Pryor is there for a photo-opp that includes him holding a gun, the opportunity never presents itself and the Senator seems more interested in simply learning more about the factory’s processes and the challenges it is facing to meet consumer demand.
Drenched in sweat, Pryor climbs back in a truck and heads back to Little Rock. He has an afternoon of fundraising calls – his least favorite political activity – but he’s upbeat about his re-election chances.
Despite the glare of the national spotlight on his race, Pryor said he’s watched Senate colleagues survive and die in recent cycles. He points to Montana Sen. John Tester’s race as an example of how a Democrat in a conservative state can still win regardless of outside special interest groups and the withering attacks on an incumbent’s voting record.
“I think certainly voting records are on limits,” Pryor says, having already okayed TV ads that highlight Cotton’s controversial votes on a wide range of issues. “I think if we’ll stick to the voting records and stick to the facts, I think that’s what the people of Arkansas deserve to have in this campaign. I’m afraid what you’re going to see though is a lot of outside money.”
In 2002, Pryor was a young one-term Attorney General when he took on incumbent GOP Sen. Tim Hutchinson, who had gone through a high-profile divorce. Fast forward 11 years and the roles are somewhat reversed. Pryor, who has gone through a recent divorce, is the older politician being challenged by a one-term younger upstart. He doesn’t see many parallels in the analogy, but one gets the impression that the divorce has taken an emotional toll on the Senator.
Pryor says he doesn’t have “much of a social life right now” – he’s pretty consumed with Senate work and campaigning. He’s appreciative that Arkansans have honored his privacy on the matter, which he admits has been a painful personal experience.
“It’s been very hard to go through,” Pryor says while turning to look out the window on the drive back from Lonoke. “Whenever you go through something like this, you worry about your children… I do appreciate the fact that people in the state have been so understanding, they’ve honored my request for privacy. The state has been just incredible in honoring that.”
He adds that he values spending time with his college-age kids and he’s looking forward to helping his daughter move into her dorm, while hunting season promises some opportunities in the wilderness with his son.
Personality-wise, this race couldn’t present a starker contrast in campaign styles. Cotton, the uncompromising, principled conservative versus Pryor, the conciliator who believes in consensus from the left, right and center.
Both men are posed a simple question and their reactions may give the reader insight into how both men view this race
The question: If President Obama were to come to Arkansas, where would you take him?
“You know, I would take him to a lot of different places. He doesn’t know our state,” says Pryor in acknowledgement of the disconnect between the President and the Natural State.
“I’d start off in the Delta, maybe go to Pickens Store in Dumas for lunch so he could hear the frustration from our rural communities and farmers about some of his policies. I’d take him to Fort Smith to meet with the 188th Fighter Wing so he could meet the guardsmen who are worried about their futures. I would show him Little Rock Air Force Base and Central High School and the Clinton Library. Then there’s Petit Jean and the Buffalo. There’s just a lot to see here, to understand our state,” he said.
Cotton’s first crack at the question is even more serious in its response.
After a few seconds of reflection, Cotton says, “I’d like to take him to some of the old mills in south Arkansas that have closed over the last several years. In many ways, those mills closed as a direct result of the financial collapse, which was spurred on by the housing collapse. That’s an example, I think, of how the flawed liberal policies in Washington can have drastic, severe effects second-order effects on the lives of hard-working Arkansans who did not know about them, did not support them if they did know about them, and their lives have been terribly affected by that.”
“You wouldn’t take him to Whole Hog Cafe or Juanita’s?” asks this reporter.
“That might be a fun stop in the evening, once the work is done,” Cotton replies. “I’d take him up to the Cotton farm and let him work out a little bit of his frustrations that I share about Washington by cleaning some fence rows or burning some dozer piles or maybe up to Mt. Nebo to go on a run around the bench trail. Although I guess he would want me to take him to play golf somewhere if I knew some good places. “
There’s not much chance that the President steps foot in Arkansas between now and Election Day 2014, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be the most talked about politician in a Senate campaign that could control the balance of power in Washington, D.C.