How the Cotton Campaign Is Thinking

by Eliana Johnson

None of us ever assumed that this was going to be a situation where we were going to have this thing salted away by spring of ’14,” says a source close to Tom Cotton’s Senate campaign, which has taken a beating in the press over the past few weeks.

At the same time, Cotton’s opponent, Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, who had his political obituary written last year, has had it retracted. In April 2013, the political analyst Stuart Rothenberg declared him the most vulnerable incumbent of the 2014 midterm election season. In November 2013 and February 2014, National Journal and the Washington Post, respectively, echoed that assessment.

Over the past few months, the narrative has shifted dramatically. Propelling the shift was an NBC News/Marist poll released earlier this month showing Cotton trailing the two-term senator by eleven points. (The Huffington Post’s average of all polls has Pryor leading by three points.)

The dominoes began to fall.

On May 15, the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato moved the race from “Lean Republican” into the “Toss Up” column. While Cotton is widely considered one of the party’s strongest recruits this cycle, National Journal’s Ron Fournier on Sunday declared him, in a dispatch from Little Rock, “an overrated candidate.”

“Setting aside his impressive biography,” Fournier wrote — Cotton is a Harvard-educated Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and a former McKinsey consultant — “he is not a strong retail politician in a state that values handshake-to-handshake combat, and Cotton’s brief record in Congress falls to the right of the state’s GOP mainstream. He voted against the farm bill and disaster relief while supporting the government shutdown and a plan to raise the Medicare eligibility age.” Cotton’s late-January vote against the farm bill was not a vote cast out of political self-interest. In fact, Cotton was the only member of the Arkansas delegation to do so, and not a single Republican in Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, or Missouri joined him, and the vote is likely hurting him as he seeks to introduce himself to Arkansans unfamiliar with his record.

Sources close to the campaign, not surprisingly, have a different take. They say the race is neck-and-neck and that, right now, they’re focused primarily on introducing Cotton to Arkansans.

The NBC News poll shows that a full 29 percent of voters either don’t know who he is or don’t know what to think of him. That’s why the campaign’s three most recent ads have been personal in nature, featuring Cotton with his drill sergeant, with his mom, and with his dad. “After Harvard, he gave up a great career to volunteer for the Army,” his mother says. “They offered to make him a military lawyer, but Tom insisted on the infantry, just like his dad. We need people in Washington who do the hard things, that’s the only way to make things right.”

The Cotton campaign spent more money than it wanted to putting up all of these ads, and some of them — the mom ad in particular, which aired over Christmas – weren’t as effective as they’d hoped. But, says the source, “All of these are designed to give Arkansas a sense of who he is.”

“​Everybody acts as though this has been a race between heavyweights at the statewide level,” says the source. That’s true at the national level, where outside groups on both sides have already poured millions into the race, the source says, “but Arkansans don’t know Tom.”

Once a Democratic stronghold, Arkansas has trended increasingly Republican. President Obama lost the state by more than 23 points, and his approval rating remains in the low 30s. Pryor’s approval has been mired in the low 40s for the past year.

“We’re not panicked,” says the source, “because the guy who has the job right now is well below 50 and can’t break out.”

UPDATE: This post originally stated, incorrectly, that the drill sergeant ad, not the mom ad, wasn’t as effective as the campaign had hoped.