"Tom Cotton voted against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola,” a TV ad in Arkansas declared last week. The ad came from Democrat Mark Pryor, who is running for reelection to the Senate. Cotton, a House member, is his Republican opponent in the November 4 election. The ad failed to mention that after voting against an early version of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act, Cotton voted for the bill once a provision he objected to was removed.
Last spring, Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s PAC said in an ad: “Before Congress, Cotton got paid handsomely working for insurance companies.” The claim was untrue, as was the ad’s insistence that Cotton “wants to end Medicare’s guarantee, giving billions in profits to insurance companies.” The Washington Post’s fact checker gave the ad “four Pinocchios,” calling it “as phony as a three-dollar bill.”
In June, a 30-second ad by the Arkansas Democratic party said Cotton opposes disaster relief. It featured a scene of damage caused by tornadoes in Arkansas on April 27, insinuating that Cotton was against aiding the victims. He wasn’t. His votes were against the pork-laden bills after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.
In August, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee aired a TV spot accusing Cotton of having voted against federal funding for Arkansas Children’s Hospital. But Cotton’s opposition to the legislation didn’t cost the hospital any funding. On the contrary, he voted in favor of funding the two agencies that do aid the hospital.
By now, you should have gotten the drift: Democrats are going to extreme lengths to protect Pryor and demonize Cotton, his Republican challenger. And they’re taking nearly as combative an approach to defend Democratic incumbents in three other red states—North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alaska.
But there’s a special intensity to the attacks on Cotton, along with a glaring disregard for the truth. This is probably because Pryor, 51, has been viewed as the most vulnerable of the four incumbents.
Cotton, given his background, appears to strike fear in the heart of Democrats. He’s from Dardanelle, a small town an hour’s drive from Little Rock. And he not only is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law, he joined the Army after 9/11, went to OCS, and served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a conservative with a uniquely attractive set of skills and experience.
Six months ago, Cotton, 37, was the favorite in the race. But the attack ads have taken a toll, causing Cotton to fall narrowly behind Pryor in polls and briefly driving his approval rating into negative territory. He’s recovered since then, and today the race is essentially tied.
The truth-defying ads are only part of the TV assault on Cotton. Other ads consist of generic, if stale, criticism of Cotton as eager to slash Medicare and Social Security benefits. Cotton disputes this, but he’s aired TV rebuttals only to the palpably false ads.
The most captivating of his rebuttals stars the burly sheriff of Faulkner County, Andy Shock. When the tornado hit, “Tom Cotton stood with us every step of the way,” Shock says. “Shame on anyone who uses our tragedy for their own political gain. It’s just wrong. Senator Pryor, start focusing on the real issues. Leave our community and our tragedy out of your campaign.”
The Cotton campaign relies on a single theme: Pryor and Obama are one and the same, politically and ideologically. “I look for those elusive Arkansans who agree with President Obama 93 percent of the time,” Cotton says facetiously. “I can’t find them. I never can find them. I have to go to D.C. to find Mark Pryor, the only Arkansan who agrees with Obama 93 percent of the time.”
Since winning an open House seat in 2012, Cotton has improved as a candidate. His stump speech is a succinct 10 minutes, followed by handshaking and picture-taking. He travels the state in a van with his wife Anna—they were married in March—and their dog Cowboy. Cotton won a contested primary two years ago, then defeated Democrat Gene Jeffress, 60-37 percent. He was unopposed for the Senate nomination this year after two House colleagues, Tim Griffin and Steve Womack, declined to run.
Some Republicans are privately critical of Cotton for going his own way on some House votes. He voted against the farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act, and Sandy relief. Arkansas is an agricultural state, but Cotton thinks his opposition to the farm bill won’t hurt against Pryor. He says many Arkansans don’t like the farm bill.
John Goodson, a prominent Democrat from Texarkana, is a friend of Pryor and his father, David Pryor, a one-term governor and senator for 18 years. Goodson serves on the University of Arkansas board of trustees with the elder Pryor. He says the Pryors are “fine men.”
But the “people of Arkansas have changed a little to the Republican way of life,” he says. Obama has “hurt the Democratic party . . . and that’s got to be tough to turn around.” Goodson supports Cotton and thinks he’ll win. “What’s made the race as close as it is,” he says, are the Democratic ads against Cotton.
Yet Mark Pryor is hardly a lightning rod. Several of his TV commercials are personal. With his father at his side, he endorses two health care provisions without mentioning that they’re part of Obamacare. In another ad, he holds up a Bible.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in His word,” he says. “This is my compass, my North Star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what’s best for Arkansas. I’m Mark Pryor and I approve this message because this is who I am and what I believe.”
He hasn’t revealed if it was the Bible that led him to accuse Tom Cotton of leaving Arkansas vulnerable to the Ebola virus.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.