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Can Tom Cotton Win?

Can Tom Cotton Win?

By Sean Trende - August 6, 2013

Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton announced Tuesday that he will try to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in 2014. It's a recruiting coup for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had hoped to entice the rising GOP star into the race. Outside of three open-seat races where the party has the edge -- Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia -- Arkansas represents the best chance for Republicans to pick up a seat, and it is almost certainly a “must win” for the GOP if it hopes to take back the Senate (simply because the remaining competitive seats will be more difficult hauls).

So, how good are Cotton’s odds? The race is probably a tossup, but if I’m forced to put a thumb on the scale, I’d probably put it in his favor.

Let’s start with a little bit of history. There were four factors that determined how quickly a Southern state moved toward the GOP: whether there was a significant “Reconstruction Republican” contingent (as in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee); a growing urban base that attracted Northern voters (Dallas, Tampa); a significant African-American population (which tended to move white voters into the party); and a split in the state Democratic Party (Tory Democrats vs. liberals in Texas; Byrd Democrats vs. urban progressives in Virginia).

States that had all of these factors reddened quickly. Arkansas, however, had only a small historic Republican contingent in the Ozark hills in the northwest, no major metropolitan area (Little Rock still has less than 200,000 people), and a relatively small black population. V.O. Key’s classic “Southern Politics in State and Nation,” which hoped to describe the rich diversity of politics present among and within Southern states, held up Arkansas as one state with a truly homogenous Democratic Party. This meant there were few fissures for an upstart Republican Party to exploit.

The result was that while states with all four factors present (such as Virginia, Florida and Tennessee) voted Republican in almost all of the presidential elections between 1952 and 1988, Arkansas voted that way only four times, in the wave years of 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988. Unlike most other Southern states, its PVI -- that is, how it voted relative to the country as a whole -- stayed pretty close to the average for the United States from 1952 to 2004.

With the exceptions of 1952, 1976, and 1992 (when it was very Democratic), and 1972 (when it was very Republican), Arkansas was within five points of the country as a whole at the presidential level.

At the state level, the GOP’s progress was even more modest. Between the end of Reconstruction and 2008, the state elected only two Republican governors, one of whom (Mike Huckabee) rose to that office only after Democrat Jim Guy Tucker resigned in disgrace. It elected only a single Republican senator, Tim Hutchinson -- and that was for just one term. And as of 2008, it was the only Southern state to have never had a majority-Republican congressional delegation.

Taken as a whole, the state probably leaned Democratic up through the 2008 elections, which meant that the party could be reasonably confident of winning most elections to state and federal offices there. But that began to change in the mid-to-late 2000s, as it did with many of the states in “Greater Appalachia” (West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri).

In 2008, the state was 14 points more Republican than the country as a whole. It was 14 points more Republican than the country again in 2012. Republicans won three of four congressional seats in the 2010 midterms, and defeated Sen. Blanche Lincoln by a 21-point margin -- one of the 10 worst showings for an incumbent in Senate history (Lincoln won by double digits in 1998 and 2004). In 2012, Republicans swept the congressional delegation and won control of the statehouse. They are favored to win the governorship in 2014.

What this means is that the state is a very different place than when it elected Pryor over a wounded Republican incumbent in 2002, or when he was re-elected without opposition in 2008. His difficulties become even more apparent when we dig down a bit deeper into the state.

We begin with a map of the results for the 2002 race. In dark blue counties, Pryor won over 60 percent of the vote. Every gradation that’s less blue represents a gradual weakening of Pryor’s position. White counties were split 50-50, while gradations of red mean that Hutchinson won the county by increasing margins.

So how did Pryor win? First, he held down Hutchinson’s margins in the traditionally Republican parts of the state in the Northwest. Second, he won Pulaski County (Little Rock) easily, and did reasonably well in its suburbs. He carried the heavily black counties in the Delta by overwhelming margins.

But the real key to Pryor’s narrow victory was southern Arkansas. Pryor’s father represented the area in Congress, and it is the most “Deep Southern” area of the state. Pryor carried almost all of these counties.

Southern Arkansas has become something of the swing region of the state. Unsuccessful Democrats during the early 2000s came close to replicating Pryor’s showing in the Delta and in Pulaski County, but were much less successful in southern region of the state: Al Gore split these counties with George Bush while losing the state by five points, while John Kerry lost all except for a handful of them. Even in the counties they won, Kerry and Gore didn’t put up the gaudy 70 percent showings that Pryor did.

You can see the same basic coalition emerge in the closely divided state House (left) and state Senate (right): Democrats perform well in the Delta, Little Rock, and southern Arkansas (note the subtle gerrymander in the state House, with the lengthy districts in east central Arkansas stretching into the more heavily African-American areas near the Mississippi River).

The problem for Pryor is threefold. First, a large part of the southern realignment has been generational, and it has hit the rural South especially hard in the past decade. If you were 5 years old when the Great Depression started, and spent your formative years with FDR in the White House, you would have been 77 in 2002. Your odds of surviving that long, and being capable of voting, were reasonably good. Odds were also pretty good that you voted for Pryor’s father when he ran for Congress, governor, and senator. But in 2014, those voters will be 89. Few will be alive, and fewer will be voting. There were a lot more voters in this part of the state still voting against Herbert Hoover (so to speak) in 2002 than there will be in 2014. The family name will be even less of a boon: David Pryor’s last run was in 1990; voters as old as 42 would never have cast a ballot for him.

Second, as the Democrats have moved toward a more urban, upscale coalition, and developed an agenda that caters to those groups, they’ve paid an increasing price with downscale, rural voters. This was especially important during the 111th Congress, when Democrats held 60 seats in the Senate and needed every vote to move controversial legislation through a filibuster. So Pryor cast what can fairly be called the deciding vote for any number of bills in that Congress, including Obamacare. He also recently backed the immigration reform bill, despite representing a state where the population is only 6.8 percent Hispanic. It will be much easier to cast him as a national Democrat next year than it was in 2002, or even in 2008.

Third, and perhaps most important, running against Cotton in an off-year election is a strategic and demographic nightmare for Pryor. In an off year, he won’t be able to count on a surge in African-American turnout in the east. Cotton has an Ivy League education to help connect with suburbanites and denizens in the northwest. And he has a military background to help connect with voters in the rural areas of the state. Most importantly, Cotton represents the southern portion of the state in Congress, and won his House seat by a huge margin in 2012. That doesn’t mean that Pryor won’t run well for a Democrat in southern Arkansas, but he probably can’t count on the type of massive margins a Democrat probably needs to win statewide today.

None of this is to say that Pryor is an easy target. Cotton is young and has served only a single term in Congress; he might look overly ambitious, like Rick Berg in North Dakota (though Berg’s loss in 2012 had as much to do with Heidi Heitkamp’s pitch-perfect campaign as with his own weaknesses). Cotton’s voting record might be too economically libertarian for Arkansas; votes against the farm bill and student aid reform could hurt him. And Pryor can point to his own votes against Obama on occasion, and stress that he’s an “independent voice” in Congress; the vote against the gun control bill in particular stands out.

We don’t have any independent polling for the state. A number of conservative groups have shown Cotton up in their surveys. A poll conducted for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had Pryor up by eight points, although that survey also found Obama to have an improbable 41 percent approval rating in the state. If we assume that the polls for conservative groups represent a best-case scenario for Cotton, and that the poll for AFSCME represents a best-case scenario for Pryor, the candidates are probably tied in the low 40s. This is a precarious position for a two-term incumbent, especially when a majority of the undecided voters probably disapprove of the president.

So Republicans should be happy that Cotton ran, and should feel good about their position. At the same time, this is a tough race, and they shouldn’t pop the champagne bottles just yet. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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