Tuesday, October 28, 2014

TOP STORY >> Pryor vs. Cotton: How times change

Special to the leader

Only six years ago, Mark Pryor was re-elected to the U. S. Senate by the widest margin in the country, almost 80 percent. So popular or at least so invulnerable was Pryor that he was the only senatorial candidate of either major party who did not get an opponent from the other party. He defeated Rebekah Kennedy, a lawyer who ran on the Green Party ticket and attacked him for his conservative voting record.

Only one other senator in modern Arkansas history got by without a major-party opponent, Pryor’s daddy, in 1990.

But two years ago, even before Tom Cotton announced he would run, Pryor was universally marked for almost certain defeat in 2014, like his colleague Blanche Lincoln in 2010. From the outset, Pryor trailed Cotton, the largely unknown first-term representative from the district embracing southern and western Arkansas, by a wide margin but clawed his way back into contention in the most expensive political race, by far, in Arkansas history. As the election approaches, he still trails Cotton in most polls.

So what happened to that mandate?

The short answer is that the earth moved under Pryor’s feet. Barack Obama was elected president in the same election that gave Pryor his second term, and the gradual pace of demographic change quickened. White voters, particularly men, left the Democratic Party in droves and, outside urban precincts, the inevitable linkage with Obama put Democratic candidates for even the lowest offices at a disadvantage.

The Cotton-Pryor campaign has not been about the records or philosophies of either man, although Pryor tried mightily to make it so, but about President Obama. In their two hour-long debates, Cotton uttered Obama’s name 73 times in one and 81 in the other. No matter what the question was, Cotton worked in “Obama,” often four or five times in the same response. The evidence is that the strategy works almost unfailingly.

Linda Collins Smith, a veteran Republican legislative candidate in north central Arkansas, told a Little Rock visitor at a campaign event in Sharp County last week that all she had to do was mention that her opponent was in a party with Obama.

“It’s the easiest race I ever ran,” she said. Cotton has found that it works from border to border.

Pryor’s own commercials and those of independent Democratic groups tried to make Pryor’s own voting record and that of Cotton the issue, suggesting that Cotton’s passionate libertarian philosophy left no room for helping Arkansas people through the spending of federal dollars on disaster relief and food aid or the activities of the federal government like subsidized medical insurance, student loans, Medicaid and Medicare. It seemed to put Pryor back in the game early this year—Cotton’s negatives are amazingly high for a politician so recently on the scene—but Pryor’s momentum stalled this summer when he reached approximate parity with Cotton, a little above 40 percent in the polls.

Fetching life stories helped both Pryor, 51, and Cotton, 37, achieve immediate success in politics.

Pryor’s father, David, whose esteem was a big factor in all of Mark’s races, was one of the most popular politicians in Arkansas history, winning three races for state representative from his home county of Ouachita, three for U.S. representative from the Fourth District, two for governor and three for the Senate.

A heart attack and distress over the rising partisan ferocity in Congress made him quit in 1996. Like his colleague, Dale Bumpers, who quit two years later, Pryor had many Republican friends and often cosponsored bills with them.

The Republicans had been replaced by angrier men who considered Democrats the enemy, and the Senate became a less collegial place.

The younger Pryor, shyer and less ebullient than his father, was even less partisan when he went to the Senate, in his father’s old seat, in 2003. He often incurred the wrath of Democratic leaders in the Senate and many Democrats at home when he joined with a handful of moderates from both parties to bridge the divide between the warring factions. He was one of the “Gang of Fourteen”—seven Democrats and seven Republican moderates—who teamed up in 2005 to end the stalemate in the Senate, when the minority Democrats filibustered the confirmation of 10 of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

The majority Republicans threatened to use Senate rules to prevent filibusters—the so-called “nuclear option”—but Pryor and the other 13 collaborated to confirm all but the “worst” of the Bush nominees in exchange for the GOP not adopting the nuclear option, which Republicans had opposed when Democrats threatened to use it against Republicans who were filibustering President Clinton’s nominees.

Pryor and Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut joined Republicans on other occasions to end stalemates.

It continued after Obama’s election. Pryor, two other Democrats and three Republicans—known this time as the “Gang of Six”—teamed up to try to force a compromise on debt reduction after a bipartisan commission recommended far-reaching tax and benefit changes and budget cuts to lower the future costs of Medicare and Social Security and reach a balanced budget. With both parties and the president at loggerheads, Pryor’s bipartisan group proposed sweeping changes short of those proposed by the commission but which would have reduced deficits by $3.7 trillion over 10 years.

Other congressional Republicans didn’t like the taxes in the plan, Democrats protested the benefit changes, and nothing was done.

Pryor has bragged often about “reaching across the isle” to work with Republicans, which he says Cotton will never do. That reputation seemed to be a part of Pryor’s popularity with independents in 2008, but in the current take-no-prisoners climate it no longer seems to move any voters.

A young lawyer with the big Wright Lindsey Jennings law firm at Little Rock, Pryor was elected to a central Little Rock seat in the state House of Representatives in 1990 and again in 1992. He opposed Attorney General Winston Bryant in the Democratic primary in 1994 and lost decisively.

In 1996 Pryor went to the doctor to treat what he thought was a basketball injury to his left Achilles tendon. It turned out to be clear-cell sarcoma, a rare cancer that is usually fatal. A doctor told him that the safest option was to have his leg amputated but Pryor underwent surgery for 13 hours to have the cancerous tendon removed and replaced by a tendon obtained from a tissue bank in New Jersey. After 15 months of therapy he was able to walk again unassisted. He still walks with a limp.

When Bryant ran unsuccessfully for the retiring Bumpers’ Senate seat in 1998, won by Republican Congressman Tim Hutchinson, Pryor ran again for attorney general and won. Pryor would win his father’s old Senate seat in 2002 after Hutchinson was sullied by an affair with his legislative assistant and a subsequent divorce. Pryor became the youngest member of the Senate.

Cotton is the son of a prominent Yell County farmer. Classmates and teachers say he was unusually serious and driven. He was determined to go to an Ivy League university, preferably Harvard, the most prestigious university in the land, and he was accepted, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in government and a law degree, the latter in 2002. He clerked for a federal judge in Texas and practiced briefly with a national law firm based in Los Angeles and another law firm in Washington, D.C.

In 2005, he joined the Army and entered officer training. In tandem with his Harvard degrees, Cotton’s four-year military career, which included duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, gave him a sparkling political résumé. After leaving the Army in 2009, he worked a short time for McKinsey & Co., the giant global corporate consulting firm, and then came home to Dardanelle to begin his political career.

Even before he announced for Congress in the Fourth District in 2011, he was being touted in Washington as a future political star. Farm boy, Harvard grad, combat soldier and corporate lawyer and consultant were viewed as an unmatched combination.

But Cotton was still struggling in the huge Fourth District as the Republican primary campaign got underway. Far behind his two Republican opponents, Cotton one day received a FedEx envelope stuffed with $300,000 of checks sent by the Club for Growth, an independent nonprofit political group that opposes taxes, federal regulation and federal social services, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose presidential campaign in 2008 was sidelined by attacks from the Club for Growth over his tax and spending increases as governor, calls it the “Club for Greed.” After the FedEx delivery, money flowed from other conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads USA.

He won the Republican primary handily and the general election against a badly outspent Democrat.

Before he was sworn in, he let it be known that he intended to run against Pryor in 2014.

Somewhere, perhaps at Harvard, Cotton developed an evangelical libertarian view of government and society. Free markets and untrammeled individual freedom were the moral forces in the United States. He wrote a column for the Harvard Crimson expressing his views about government. His columns about women were resurrected last year to raise questions about how he would vote on women’s issues, such as equal pay.

Somewhere along the way, he developed a relationship with David Koch, one of the billionaire brothers whose political spending to elect ultraconservative Republicans has been a revolving theme in the nation’s politics.

David Koch was the driving intellect of the Libertarian Party and was its candidate for vice president in 1980. The platform that year called for the repeal of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, mini mum-wage laws, food-safety laws, environmental regulation, compulsory education and government and taxpayer support of public schools and colleges. It called for the eventual repeal of all taxes.

Koch campaigned tirelessly but the Libertarian Party barely scored in an election won by Ronald Reagan. He and his running mate, Ed Clark, got one percent of the votes and less than that in Arkansas. He decided that a third party had no future and that libertarians should instead take over the Republican Party.

Koch and his brother Charles own vast oil, gas, coal and pipeline operations and other manufacturers, including Georgia Pacific, which has a big papermaking plant at Crossett.

Americans for Prosperity and other Koch-funded groups pumped tens of millions of dollars into libertarian and tea-party candidates across the country, including Cotton’s race and the campaigns of Republican legislative candidates in Arkansas.

The Cotton-Koch connection got some unwanted publicity in Arkansas in the summer when Cotton missed the Pink Tomato Festival of Warren, a must-do political event. A magazine revealed that he had been at a secret retreat at a California resort organized by Koch and attended by several billionaires with political interests. Cotton and the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, were the star guests. Cotton was lauded as one of the true champions of libertarian causes in Congress. He had a 100 percent voting record for Americans for Prosperity.

Cotton, in fact, is unlike Pryor as well as the other four Republican members of Congress from Arkansas in his distaste for compromise and political deal making. He seems to vote his convictions nearly always, though they may be troubling votes for many Arkansans, even most people in his native Yell County.

If Pryor were asked to summarize his philosophy of government, it probably would be nothing more than “try to help people.”

But on vote after vote as a freshman congressman, Cotton has stuck to libertarian principles.

He was the only member of Congress from Arkansas who voted to deny Social Security and Medicare to people under 70 years old and lower their benefits, to transform Medicare into a voucher system, to vote against reducing interest rates on student loans, to vote against federal relief to disaster victims after devastating hurricanes and tornadoes, to vote against a farm bill that continued subsidies to farmers and food subsidies for the poor, to abolish the federal economic development agency that makes development grants to Arkansas communities.

He seems to have made a single capitulation to politics. Although he opposes minimum-wage laws, he said he would vote for the initiated act on the Arkansas ballot that raises the state minimum wage once the courts approved it for the ballot. Polls show that it is widely popular.

Pryor’s campaign has concentrated almost entirely on Cotton’s steady votes against government programs and what those votes mean for Arkansas if Cotton prevailed, particularly farmers and students. But defending government in any form has limited potential in this election year, perhaps because many, perhaps most, Arkansas voters Barack Obama as the personification of government.

A single vote by Pryor is all that Cotton and the groups funding the millions of independent ads against Pryor have needed. He voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, nicknamed by Republicans as Obamacare, in 2010. The act was written by a Senate committee on which Sen. Blanche Lincoln was a key member but Obama had asked Congress to write a bill that insured everyone and brought medical spending under control and signed the bill into law.

Pryor has not defended the vote directly but he has done far more than Lincoln did. He talks about the benefits for Arkansas from the expansion of Medicaid, the coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, the new protections against insurance companies canceling people’s policies when they have long-term illnesses or capping their benefits and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ policies until they are 26. He just doesn’t say that they are part of Obamacare.

But the ads, both those run by the Cotton campaign and by independent groups that keep their donors secret, make Pryor the man who made the law possible because it passed in the Senate without a vote to spare.

Cotton says if he is elected to the Senate and Republicans take over the Senate they will repeal Obamacare.

His critics ask, what will happen to the 250,000 Arkansans who now have health insurance, the hospitals that depend upon the reimbursement and the hundreds of thousands of seniors who would see their drug costs go up sharply if the law is repealed? Cotton suggests that they would find something to replace the law.

But despite all the benefits and a slight relaxation of fears that Obamacare will cut people’s Medicare benefits and have the government make decisions about people’s medical treatment (it does neither of those things), Obamacare remains about as unpopular in Arkansas as it was after the blizzard of ads attacking in 2010. The insurance reform and the president are albatrosses that Pryor has been unable to dislodge.

Like other Arkansas Democrats, Pryor’s hope is an unprecedented voter-turnout project and a swarm of new young voters who may not share their elders’ prejudices and preferences. It is a long hope.