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Faith at Center Stage in Arkansas Senate Race

Faith at Center Stage in Arkansas Senate Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 16, 2014

The Bible has made its way to the center of one the most highly contested and consequential U.S. Senate races this cycle.

The Good Book, in fact, was the focus of one of Mark Pryor’s re-election campaign ads last December. “My compass, my North Star,” the Arkansas Democrat called it. And the Scriptures made a return to the airwaves last week in another Pryor ad -- this time in response to comments his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, made about his faith. “The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers, only God does,” the two-term senator says in the spot, airing statewide.

Religion and faith as campaign issues are commonplace in Republican primaries across the country. But this particular race is already in general election mode, and has been for about a year. It’s unusual for a Democratic candidate these days to be seen with a Bible in hand on the trail, but Pryor is campaigning as a different kind of Democrat. And Arkansas -- one of the most religious places in the country -- is a different kind of state.

Republicans hope President Obama’s unpopularity there (he lost it by 21 points in 2012) and negative views of the health care law will help sink Pryor. And they have another reason for optimism: In one respect, Arkansas is a rapidly changing state. Just five years ago, Pryor was part of a congressional delegation that included just one Republican. Now, he is the only Democrat representing the Natural State in Congress and is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election. It’s not surprising, then, that at almost every turn, Cotton has tried to tie Pryor to Obama. But that effort also placed the Republican in a bit of hot water.

After the Supreme Court ruled earlier this month to exempt closely held for-profit companies from having to provide certain contraception coverage under the health care law -- if doing so violated the owners’ religious beliefs -- Cotton sat down with a local television station to praise the ruling and ding Pryor’s support of Obamacare.

"It's another example of how Obamacare infringes on the liberties of all Arkansans. Barack Obama and Mark Pryor think that faith is something that only happens at 11 on Sunday mornings,” he asserted. “That's when we worship, but faith is what we live every single day. And the government shouldn't infringe on the rights of religious liberty.”

Democrats pounced on the comments as an out-of-bounds questioning of Pryor’s faith. The incumbent then took the airwaves with an ad that included clips of local media coverage of Cotton’s comments and a quote from Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

This wasn’t the first time in the campaign an effort to hit Pryor went awry. Last year, Cotton’s campaign had to denounce  a response from the National Republican Senatorial Committee to Pryor’s first Bible ad.

In both cases, the controversies seemed to be politically positive for Pryor, who will need to attract Christian voters inclined to vote for the Republican candidate. A Marist poll taken in May found that the challenger leads Pryor among white evangelicals, 58 percent to 36 percent. (Overall, the RCP polling average shows Cotton ahead by 2.8 points.)

“Anytime faith is part of the conversation, it’s to Pryor’s benefit,” says Little Rock-based Democratic strategist Greg Hale. “When you’re a Democrat and you’re having to go after traditionally Christian voters that sometimes tend to vote more conservative, it helps with the middle-right.”

The dust-up also serves as a distraction, as it put the spotlight more on faith and less on Pryor’s voting record (including his support for the health care law) as well as his opinion on the Hobby Lobby case -- which Republicans prefer to be the case.

For his part, Pryor has to be careful not to overreach and exploit any religious controversy (he isn’t likely to campaign specifically on the issue of faith, his campaign says). But while Republicans in the state contend that Cotton’s comments weren’t well-crafted, the issue of religious beliefs and the health care law resonate with Arkansans.

In a statement, Cotton said he believes Pryor to be a man of faith and respects him for it, “but I wish he would respect Arkansans’ right to practice our faith. Instead, Senator Pryor and President Obama still defend Obamacare even after the Supreme Court said it violated freedom of religion.”

Congressional Democrats are backing legislation that would reverse the Supreme Court decision on contraception coverage. Majority Leader Harry Reid is pushing for a vote on the bill, which Democrats hope will animate women voters in a midterm election year, when turnout tends to diminish. Some vulnerable Democrats, including Mark Udall of Colorado and Mark Begich of Alaska, have signed on. But the issue may play differently in Arkansas.

Pryor was elected to the Senate in 2002 after defeating Republican incumbent Tim Hutchinson, who had run his first Senate campaign on family values to appeal to Christian conservatives in the state. But after winning, Hutchison divorced his wife and remarried soon after, which became a difficult issue for him when running against Pryor. (Pryor and his wife divorced in 2012.)

“I think both sides see [faith] as a clear issue that matters to voters in Arkansas,” says Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican strategist who managed Arkansas Sen. John Boozman’s 2010 Senate campaign, in which he defeated Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln. She is also the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 GOP presidential candidate and an ordained Southern Baptist minister with widespread appeal among Christian conservatives.

“What it will come down to is who can make the case that their faith is what drives their voting patterns -- supporting things I believe in morally versus things I don’t,” she said. Huckabee Sanders pointed to abortion as an issue that could come up that would test the candidates on faith.

The Cotton campaign has already alluded to that. “Senator Pryor may take a lot of offense to [Cotton’s] television interview, but what we haven’t seen him take offense to is Obamacare forces Christians to violate their deeply held religious beliefs,” said Cotton campaign spokesman David Ray, who also pointed to Pryor’s lack of support for a 20-week abortion ban. Those are “very important to Americans of all stripes but particularly those of faith.”

Pryor said last year he has “always leaned toward the pro-life side” of the abortion rights debate, “but I don’t fit neatly into any of the categories.” The Democrat is one of the few in his caucus who doesn’t support same-sex marriage, a virtual non-starter among the religious right.

Those issues resonate in campaigns across the country, not just in Arkansas. And the issue of faith has become a controversial one in past elections. In 2008, then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina came under fire for accusing her Democratic opponent, Kay Hagan, of being “godless” for attending a fundraiser held by a member of the Godless Americans PAC. Hagan called the ad “vile” at the time and defended her faith, citing her experience as a Sunday school teacher and church elder. She went on to win the race that year, which was also a favorable one for Democrats across the country.

With nearly four months still left until Election Day, observers on both sides know how fast the focus of a campaign can change. But nowhere else this year are they likely to find a race with an argument about faith at center stage, or a Democratic candidate running ads with a Bible in his hand, highlighting verses pertaining to judgment.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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