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February 11, 2016

Mark Pryor: Still This Cycle’s Most Vulnerable Senator

Sen. Mark Pryor is seeking re-election in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Mark Pryor, a Democratic senator from Arkansas, is seeking re-election in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

More than a year ago, I called Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., this cycle’s most vulnerable senator. That hasn’t changed.

The longer I do this, the more transparent I try to be about my thinking about each race. So, this column sets out my view of the Arkansas Senate race, which has been different from the thinking of many.

The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call, rates it as a Tossup/Tilts Republican contest, while many (probably most) others now see the race as a pure tossup, or possibly even view Pryor having a small advantage.

Those who see Pryor in good shape point to two public polls conducted during the spring showing the Democrat holding a significant lead over his challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, the GOP nominee.

An NBC News/Marist poll conducted from April 30 to May 4, showed Pryor leading by double digits, 51 percent to 40 percent. That followed an April 8-15 New York Times/Kaiser Foundation survey that found Pryor with a 10-point lead, 46 percent to 36 percent.

Those results, and the results of other surveys showing a tight race but with Pryor leading, has led some to remark that Cotton is weak, that Arkansas is different than other Deep South states, or that Pryor can survive even in a bad year because of his moderate record and the state’s affection for his father, David Pryor, a former governor and senator.

For example, National Journal’s Ron Fournier called Cotton “an overrated candidate,” adding that “he is not a strong retail politician in a state that values handshake-to-handshake combat.”

My own assessment of Cotton is a bit different. While he was a little stiff when I interviewed him, I found him thoughtful and personable. He certainly isn’t a back-slapper, but back-slapping probably isn’t as important these days as it once was.

I’m not at all sure that I would call Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a great retail politician, and yet he annihilated the very personable Blanche Lincoln in 2010. Party and ideology have become more important these days than they once were.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Pryor and Lincoln started their re-election in the same place. Lincoln had a primary, her voting record made her more vulnerable from the start, and she was not in nearly as good shape in polling as Pryor is this cycle.

Polls, including early polls, certainly matter to me. But, since I am concerned with the November outcome and not with where a race is at any given point in an election cycle, my ratings are based on more than the latest public polling.

At this point in an election cycle, I still have a working assumption about how the race will end up. That assumption is based on an assessment of the candidates, the dynamics of the particular election cycle and the past performance of candidates (and parties) in the state.

If the NBC/Marist and New York Times/Kaiser Foundation polls show Cotton trailing Pryor badly and the senator at or near 50 percent of the vote in the fall, and if they are supported by other polls, I’ll certainly move the Arkansas race out of its current category and into one that suggests better prospects for Pryor.

But at this point in the cycle, I’m simply not convinced that voters in Arkansas are evaluating the contest the same way that they will evaluate it in the fall, so I remain skeptical of the senator’s prospects. (I should note that I have used this approach for years, and there have been occasions when early poll numbers did and did not end up having predictive value.)

In my view, the fundamentals favor Pryor’s opponent so heavily that I would need dramatic new information to move the race at this point toward the incumbent in my ratings. President Barack Obama drew just 37 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2012, so Pryor would need to run at least 13 points ahead of the president to win re-election later this year. That’s possible but incredibly difficult.

At the moment, the president’s job approval isn’t merely poor in the state; it’s horrible (35 percent in a recent Public Opinion Strategies survey). Democratic performance in federal races in Arkansas hasn’t been merely bad; it has been horrendous. The president isn’t merely involved in the current political narrative; he is at the center of it — with the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, his proposed carbon regulations, and a very controversial prisoner swap that developed after yet another Susan E. Rice screw-up.

Not all is bad for the president, of course. Recent job numbers are good, and there is a sense among many economists that the economy finally is picking up steam.

The question, of course, is whether voters believe that and feel more optimistic about the future. So far, there is little evidence of that.

Three recent polls — by GOP firms POS and OnMessage, Inc., and a third by Rasmussen — show Cotton ahead and Pryor sitting in the low 40s. Some will discount those surveys because of their partisan nature, and because Republican polls were not as accurate as Democratic ones in 2012. But in 2010, GOP polls were more accurate than Democratic surveys, and some partisan polls are better than some non-partisan ones.

With public polling divided and the political environment strongly favoring Republicans in so-called red states, early polls showing Pryor with a lead aren’t enough to force me to change my expectations about the trajectory of the race. Not yet, at least.

  • mabramso

    I have thought from the beginning that Pryor, Hagan (NC), Begich (AK), and Landrieu (LA) are all toast. They are tied at best in the polls and mostly under 45% in red states (OK, NC is only red during midterm elections). I think the really tight races will be in IA and CO, and possibly MI.

    • Rhonda Simms

      NC is still a red state in presidential years, just not by as much as the others you mentioned. It is about 3 points more republican than the nation as a whole. So, democrats can carry the state but only if they are winning in a landslide nationally, like in 2008.

      • mabramso

        Considering that the GOP doesn’t seem capable of breaking even in Presidential elections, 3 points over the national average seems to me to be about 50-50, which would be a purple state. And considering that Romney barely won NC after McCain lost it barely, it seems purple to me. :-)

        • Pro_bono_publico

          Even as North Carolina natives have voted increasingly Republican, NC’s major urban areas and college towns have been balanced by an influx of Democrat transplants from out of state. North Carolina remains one of the most competitive swing states.

          • mabramso

            At the presidential level, it would appear that you are correct — at least when the Democrats get massive turnout like they did in 2008 and 2012. However, as recently as a couple of years ago, NC passed by a 60-40 margin arguably the toughest anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment referendum in the country — even though they already had one in place by statute. Swing states don’t normally do that.

          • Pro_bono_publico

            That’s because a sizable portion of African-Americans also oppose gay marriage — especially in the South, where most blacks are still practicing Baptists.

          • mabramso

            True! But I still believe that NC leans red in midterm elections.

  • Whit_Chambers

    This is more BAD news for the Democrats, and therefore more GOOD news for America.

    The Dems will lose Ark, Louisiana, and NC.. PLUS Ernst is going to beat Braley in Iowa and Udall will lose Colorado. McConnell is pulling away from Grimes, and in Georgia Nunn is trailing both Republicans.

    This isn’t going to going to be a wave, it is going to be more like a Tsunami.

    • Pro_bono_publico

      The Democrats are going to lose open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia, and Democrat incumbents are going down in Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Alaska. The Democrat incumbent in Colorado also looks surprisingly weak, and the Republicans have strong candidates in Democrat open seats in Iowa and Michigan. I predict the Republicans will pick up between six and nine seats in the U.S. Senate in November, and the races in New Hampshire and Virginia still could become competitive if a stronger wave develops in the fall.

      • guycooksey

        …and believe it or not don’t forget Oregon. Could the GOP get 60? I surely hope so. I want to see O veto good bills and then see the dems squirm as they hold O’s veto.

        • Pro_bono_publico

          I don’t see how the Republicans could pick up more than ten seats, and that only under ideal conditions with a big wave and every competitive race breaking their way. Ten pick-ups would give the Republicans a 55-45 majority.

          The next most likely seats after the nine I mentioned above would be New Hampshire, Virginia, Oregon and Minnesota — none of which currently look to be competitive — and that would only get you to 57-58 seats. I don’t see a scenario short of nuclear war that gets the Republicans to a veto-proof 60-seat majority.

          In my analysis above, I did accidentally omit Montana, which looks to be another likely Republican pick-up, too. That gives the Republicans 10 solid pick-up opportunities, and a likely range of 6 to 10 pick-ups.

          • Rod

            Doesn’t matter really, since 60 votes isn’t “veto-proof.” It takes a 2/3 vote in both houses to override a presidential veto.

            The number 60 is relevant only to the Senate filibuster under the current rule. Hopefully, after Senator Reid dumped that rule in regard to some appointments, a GOP-led Senate will take the bull by the horns and dump it all together.

            That done, a Senate with a 51 seat majority could combine with the House to send bill after bill to the President where he could show the American public exactly where he stands by vetoing them.

            And that is when the American public will learn that this President is not on our side, not the GOP’s side, but America’s side.

          • Ronald W. Mann

            With Hairy gone, the big zero will have no one to protect him, especially from impeachment

          • Pro_bono_publico

            Impeachment isn’t going to happen. There’s no point. The house can vote the impeachment articles on a simple majority vote, but it requires a two-thirds majority (i.e. 67 votes) to convict the president and remove him from office. Assuming you could keep 51 to 55 Republican senators on side, that would still require 12 to 16 Democrats to vote to remove a Democrat president. That’s not going to happen.

          • mabramso

            It matters long-term because the Dems will probably pickup a couple seats in 2016.

          • Pro_bono_publico


          • center-right independent

            Possibly could lose Illinois and NH in 2016 however the GOP has possible pick-ups in Nevada(which I rate the strongest possible pickup for the GOP), Colorado and depending what Manchin does WV.

          • mabramso

            In 2016, IL is the most vulnerable seat for sure, but PA and FL (if Rubio runs for President) may be tough seats to hold as well. I don’t think Ayotte will lose because NH tends to toss their incumbents only when they are ticked at the party. I don’t know about NV. If Sandoval runs, then OK, but they will need a good candidate, as we found out last time. CO and WV may or may not pan out. Hard to say at this point.

          • Pro_bono_publico

            WV in 2016? It’s just as likely Manchin will change parties, but given his personal popularity, he could probably get re-elected. Without an incumbent, the Florida seat would be a pure toss-up. Given the rising backlash against Democrats in Illinois, I suspect Mark Kirk will do okay — if he is in good enough health to run again.

          • mabramso

            I hadn’t thought about Manchin switching parties. That could happen if the GOP wins enough seats in November. That would certainly make his seat safe for as long as he wants to stay there. I agree with you about FL.

            Two years is a long time in politics, IL is a very blue state, and it’s a Presidential election year, which means high Democrat turnout. So Mark Kirk will have a VERY close race at best.

          • center-right independent

            Don’t disagree with anything you said except I think it is HIGHLY unlikely Rubio runs in 2016 or wins the nomination so I wouldn’t worry about FL. You don’t think Harry Reid is in trouble? Of course they can’t and won’t pick a Sharron Angle type candidate but the way he has acted in congress makes him vunerable in a swing state like Nevada. Especially if Sandoval runs and steals a large amount of hispanic voters. Harry Reid should be very nervous about 2016 in my opinion

          • mabramso

            Well, I think Rubio is still thinking about running for President, and he has stated categorically that he will not attempt to do both a Senate run and a POTUS run. If he runs for President, then he’s all in, and he does not even run for re-election.

            Harry Reid has a history of very close races and he wins them all. He will be very difficult to take down, especially in a Presidential election year. The problem is that Harry Reid only loses if the GOP successfully nationalizes his race AND the public is still ticked off at the Democrats a lot more so than the Republicans. And over time, NV is getting bluer, not redder.

          • center-right independent

            That is assuming he wins the nomination right? I can’t see him bouncing out early in the primaries and not running for re-election later that year. NV will still be a purple state in 2016, so its no guarenteed win for the presidential and senatorial race. If Sandoval runs he most likely will win. I mean if Sharron Angle could pull 46 percent of the vote then I can’t see how he can’t eclipse that. I think it is safe to assume things won’t get any better for the Democrats in 2016 especially with the employer mandate of the ACA kicking in 2015.

          • mabramso

            I am 99% certain that the IA Caucus and NH primary both occur AFTER the filing deadline in Florida. Since Rubio has said that he will not pursue both offices simultaneously, this means that in order to pursue re-election, he would have to drop out of the Presidential races before any voting begins. Also, the history of candidates who choose to run for President and then drop out to run for re-election is murky at best.

            Too early to tell how NV will go in 2016. Early on, I would rate it as leans Democrat, and perhaps that will change. If Sandoval decides to run, then it would move to a Toss-Up.

          • Pro_bono_publico

            Yes, I know my Constitution, including Article I, Section 7.

            As you noted, the 60-vote threshold is relevant under senate rules for purposes of invoking cloture, i.e. ending a filibuster.

            I doubt the Republicans will be inclined to invoke Nuclear Option, Part II for the simple reason that they will not need it with regard to the most relevant topic: the president’s judicial nominees.

            As for the president vetoing everything to prove he’s on the “people’s side,” good luck with that. The president is going to have to swallow a lot of budget cuts and changes in priorities, even if he is able to preserve Obamacare with his veto.

          • andrewp111

            Obama doesn’t care. He will veto everything, and he will make executive order after executive order and regulation after regulation. The Congress can pass as many resolutions of disapproval as they want, and he will veto all of them. We can take the whole Congress, but Obama will make it a very rough 2 years.

          • andrewp111

            Overriding a veto requires 67 Senators and 290 House members, and getting those numbers is impossible – even with the biggest mega Tsunami possible (even if every Senate Democrat up loses in 2014, that still only gives us 66).

            Realistically, a mega tsunami could give us 15-17 seats, amounting to 60-62 Senators. Enough to make the filibuster irrelevant, but all Obama vetoes are guaranteed to hold no matter what.One thing is certain – no Democrat can vote against Obama under any circumstances whatsoever.

          • Pro_bono_publico

            Historically, most veto overrides are bipartisan. The most likely Obama vetoes to be overridden will be specific budget bills (yes, we will have 12 annual departmental budget bills again with Republican majorities) over which the president and congress (not just Republicans) differ.

            Clearly, Obamacare will not be repealed or significantly modified as long as Obama is president.

        • NM_PollFan

          You are not going to get 50 much less 60 (remember Romney in a landslide?)….then 2016 we will end the GOP in it’s current incarnation!

          • mabramso

            The GOP will easily reach 50. 60 is next to impossible.

          • NM_PollFan

            50 is no big deal as we win a tie with the VP!

          • mabramso

            Clearly, I meant 51 (or GOP control). GOP candidates are ahead or tied in enough races already. I don’t think that will change much between now and November.

          • NM_PollFan

            The GOP does have a small, repeat SMALL advantage. But never underestimate the GOPs ability to lose, especially when people get to know them. Just give em a microphone. Plus you are assuming a low turn out election (the only time the GOP can win is when the electorate is mostly old and white), I am not so sure that will be the case.

          • mabramso

            I am assuming nothing. These are red states, almost all of which went for Romney by double digits. High turnout really means more red voters in those states. All the GOP really need is to get THEIR people out to the polls, and they win.

            Where low turnout elections will benefit the GOP is in the second tier purple and slightly blue-leaning states — CO, IA, NH, MI. I fully expect the Senate to flip on red states alone, and if the GOP has a little wind at their backs, they may flip a few more.

            As far as putting their feet in their mouths, sure, the GOP has done that quite well in the past couple of cycles, but they appear to be avoiding that thus far this cycle. Most of their nominees appear to be pretty seasoned and not so prone to stupid gaffes. The only real loose cannons left are Joe Miller, who looks like a sure loser in the AK primary, and possibly McDaniel in MS (if he survives the runoff), but it is hard to see even him losing in a state as red as MS.

      • mabramso

        You forgot the open seat in Montana, which is all but flipped as well.

        • Pro_bono_publico

          Yup. I did. I mentioned it below, though.

    • barracuda43

      I agree with you. Category 5 hurricane is coming and Democrats have nowhere to go to get out of the way!

    • Ronald W. Mann

      I am thinking at least 11 senate seats, maybe more, increase in the house maybe 20

      • mabramso

        If you do the race-by-race analysis, there is no way the GOP picks up 20 seats. They already did the bulk of their damage in 2010. It will probably be single digits, or they might hit 10 if they are lucky.

        • Pro_bono_publico

          In a 1994 or 2010-style wave election, the Republicans really couldn’t pick up more than 10 to 15 seats for the exact reason you cited: there simply aren’t that many swing districts left that the Republicans don’t already hold. If every house race currently rated as a toss-up broke for the Republicans in November, they would net +14 seats, and that assumes a lot. It’s a lot more likely that the Republicans will have a net gain of 5 to 7 by splitting the 17 races rated toss-ups (4 Rs, 13 Ds).

          • mabramso

            Actually, the number of toss-ups is less than that — remember that you can’t count those seats that are already held by Republicans. The toss-ups, according to the big 3 are:
            Cook: 11
            Rothenberg: 4 (9 if you count the toss-up/lean D)
            Sabato: 6.

            Not sure where your 14 come from.

      • NM_PollFan

        And Romney in a landslide!

    • Pro_bono_publico

      The Republicans have good candidates in Colorado and Iowa, but those races are going to be catfights until the last vote is counted.

    • WISFAR

      Not to mentions MT, SD and WV sure bets!!

    • bruce b

      You’re smoking funny stuff.

  • Pro_bono_publico

    “. . . some partisan polls are better than some non-partisan ones.”

    In particular, I would trust private surveys conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (“POS”) over virtually any public poll. POS principals Neil Newhouse, Bill McInturff and Glen Bolger are among the best political campaign pollsters in the business on either side of the aisle, and they have no history of cooking the books to make their candidates look like they’re doing better than they are.

  • Orwellian_Dilemma

    If Mark Pryor–Dear Leader’s lapdog–cannot be taken down in this election year, Heaven help the Republic.


    Good analysis Stu, but reconsider your “economy is improving” meme. We just had negative growth in the last quarter and the labor participation rate is the lowest in 40 years.

    Cotton by 6-10 points. Easy one to call.

    • mabramso

      I’d guess 4-6, but either way, Pryor is toast.

  • Joe Truth

    Tattoo ‘Obamacare’ on this loon’s forehead…then watch him scream in November.

  • jdplu

    What Stuart didn’t mention about these polls was they were both heavily skewed to Democrat respondents. Does anyone believe that Democrat turnout will be 10 points higher than Republican in Arkansas this year? That what these two polls had.

    Typical liberal playbook–take a lopsided, biased poll, claim the Democrat has a fighting chance, then repeat (showing Democrat even farther ahead each time)…

  • Alice Boxstrom

    Coercion refers to the control of options, decisions, and actions so that one has little choice but to act according to the will of others.

  • Al Amo

    To freedom’s detriment, the notion that liberty is the power of central government to do specific things is widely accepted by “liberals”.

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