At the start of the 2014 election cycle, Mark Pryor's future in the Senate was widely considered as dead as the raccoons at the Gillett Coon Supper, an annual fundraiser and gathering spot for Arkansas pols.
The two-term Democrat's seat is viewed as a top pickup prospect for Republicans, who hope to control the Senate next year. Given President Obama's low approval rating and the state's red hue, Pryor seemed doomed. But recent national polls that show him leading once-formidable GOP challenger Tom Cotton have given hope to Democrats -- and have observers wondering how this could be. (The RCP Average finds Pryor ahead by 4.8 percentage points.)
The incumbent does have one distinct advantage in a state that's trending against his party, namely a family legacy -- his father, David, is a former governor and U.S. senator who remains among the most popular politicians in the state. But campaign strategy might also have something to do with his improved standing.
While his party is aiming nationally to energize key members of the 2008 and 2012 Democratic coalition, who don't typically turn out in great numbers for midterm elections, the endangered Pryor has set his sights on one group that does: the elderly.
A series of Pryor television ads focus on Medicare and Social Security, hitting his opponent for supporting Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which would alter the structure of the programs and increase the eligibility age.
It's a well-worn strategy used by Democrats in states and districts across the country and designed to portray their adversaries as extreme. But there are a couple of particular benefits in it for Pryor, who has been focusing on Cotton's support for a more conservative proposal but forth by the Republican Study Committee. Pryor used it to define Cotton early on, as the freshman congressman with an impressive résumé (a young fresh face, he has served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and holds a Harvard Law degree) works to build name recognition in the state and shed any preconceived notions that he is stiff or aloof.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll this week found Pryor is viewed more favorably than the 4th Congressional District lawmaker among registered voters, and that he leads among independents by seven points. Pryor's campaign also often highlights Cotton's votes against the Farm Bill, which the rest of the GOP delegation backed, and relief funding for Hurricane Sandy, which could now hold more significance in light of deadly tornadoes that hit areas outside Little Rock late last month.
But the Medicare attack could also help Pryor appeal to the elderly, who not only turn out for midterms but tend to vote Republican. About 15 percent of Arkansas' population is over the age of 64, 1.3 percentage points above the national average. That same NBC-WSJ poll found Pryor leading Cotton among voters over 60 years of age, 56 percent-37 percent.
But not everyone thinks those numbers mean much. Pryor "knows he can't reassemble the Obama collation here, so he's got to try to make up for it somewhere else, which is why he's running the same old 'Medi-scare' tactics," said one Republican operative in the state. "We're going to win seniors, and we're going to win the election because of it."
In one recent ad, Pryor touts legislation he wrote to make it more difficult to raise the Medicare eligibility age. "My opponent voted to withhold benefits until age 70. And I'm trying to stop that," he says in the spot. The bill hasn't gone anywhere since it was introduced in March, but the Senate Majority PAC is running ads with a similar message.
Republicans say they can neutralize that tactic by spotlighting Pryor's support for the Affordable Care Act, which is unpopular in the state. And internal GOP polling found Cotton leading Pryor by two points among likely voters. Republicans also argue that the party is often under-sampled by national pollsters in Arkansas, and that the NBC-WSJ survey relied on registered voters and not likely ones -- the latter being a more telling measure of turnout in a midterm.
For his part, the likely Republican nominee (the primary takes place May 20) has been running positive ads that highlight his military service and hometown ties and feature his former drill sergeant and parents.
The campaign is "effectively portraying him in a very humanizing way," says Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, who notes Cotton's military service resonates well with the state's high number of veterans (they constitute 11 percent of the population).
Politics is personal in small-population state like Arkansas, and likability figures to play a significant role, even though the complexion of the electorate has changed over the years, English said. "The Pryor name ... that's been a trademark for a long time," he noted. The question, however, is whether it can withstand the Republican winds in a potential wave year.
David Pryor hasn't been on the ballot in years, but older voters are more likely to remember him and may have voted for him, observers say. While son Mark is only 51, he can draw contrasts between himself and his 37-year-old opponent. Pryor might look more "like the way anyone over 60 remembers the way his dad looks," says Janine Parry, who directs the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "The contrast to Tom Cotton's youth may be a way in which the rural, older, socially conservative Arkansans who are going to make the difference in this election [are] going to connect with Pryor," she says.
"Seniors vote, and they're not like the general electorate. ... They're more consistent ... a huge part of our voting bloc," says Greg Hale, a Democratic strategist in Little Rock. To some in this group, "Cotton's record is reckless: voting against student loans, seniors, and disaster relief efforts," Hale adds. "I know Arkansas is a conservative state, we have conservative values, but we're not the state of no."
And while Pryor will do what he can to distance himself from national Democrats, they are providing some help in the state. Senate Majority PAC, connected to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is running ads hitting Cotton for his time as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and accusing him of being getting paid "handsomely working for insurance companies and corporate interests." (Politifact rated the ad false.)
Republicans inside and outside of the state acknowledge the effectiveness of these and other ads, however, and will likely use the Reid connection to tie Pryor to the Nevada senator and national Democrats. (Outside GOP groups such as Americans for Prosperity have been running ads in the state opposing Pryor.)
"You can't just sit back and think these are red states, they're going to go Republican," conservative columnist Bill Kristol told MNSBC. "Harry Reid is one tough politician. If you look at what their PAC is doing ... they want the people in Arkansas to believe Cotton is a young guy, served his country admirably in the war, but he just got married, he doesn't really understand what it's like to be a 62-year-old who might be in danger of losing his job and is worried about Medicare."