From The Wall Street Journal
Sen. Mark Pryor, speaking to a group of college officials, recently offered a biblical solution to Washington's gridlock. Politicians should follow the teachings of Jesus, the two-term Democrat said, quoting from the Sermon on the Mount.
Dale Leatherman, an administrator at a Baptist college, warmed up to the Arkansas senator after those remarks but said he still couldn't imagine voting for Mr. Pryor next year.
"Even though he personally supports conservative ideas," Mr. Leatherman said, "I struggle with the fact that he's part of a party that does not."
The ability of Democrats to keep control of the Senate in 2014 will depend largely on elections in southern states like Arkansas. One measure of the difficulties facing the party is that even a lawmaker like Mr. Pryor, a Scripture-quoting evangelical, is viewed by some conservative voters with suspicion.
Three of the four most vulnerable Senate Democrats in the 2014 election are from the South. Mr. Pryor and Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu
of Louisiana—as well as Democratic candidates in Kentucky and Georgia—must contend with the dismal approval ratings of President Barack Obama
in their home states. They face increased political pressure from the problem-ridden rollout of the health-care law.
Republicans believe Arkansas is their best shot at knocking off an incumbent, making Mr. Pryor a prime target in the battle for control of the chamber. The GOP needs to add six seats to win a majority in the Senate, an achievable but far-from-certain goal. It is hard to see how they could hit that mark if they can't win here.
Five years ago, Mr. Pryor coasted to a second term, but it was a different world. In 2008, Congress had dozens of conservative Democrats; the Tea Party had not yet made a mark on the GOP; and Arkansas remained a Democratic Party bastion, a holdout against the GOP tide that swept the South over the last half century.
Now, Mr. Pryor, son of one of Arkansas' most popular political figures, is the state's remaining Democrat in Congress and one of the last of Washington's "Blue Dogs," as the dwindling ranks of conservative Democrats are known. The state still has a Democratic governor, but since Mr. Obama was first elected president, Arkansas' state legislature and U.S. House delegation have flipped from blue to red.
Porter Briggs, a Little Rock businessman and lifelong Democrat, had always supported Mr. Pryor and Mr. Pryor's father, David Pryor, a former senator and governor. But disappointed in Mr. Pryor's support of the health-care law, Mr. Briggs said he let the senator know he would back his likely 2014 opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. The Arkansas Poll in October found voters evenly split between the two men.
"I told him I felt he's listening to the Democratic Party, which has left us," Mr. Briggs said. "It swung to the left and Mark went with them."
The 2014 midterm elections will test whether Democrats can stop or slow the march of the South's swing voters into the GOP, an exodus that accelerated in some places during the Obama presidency.
"The question is: Does the rightward shift in Arkansas voters solidify, to continue beyond this particular president, who continues to be peculiarly unpopular here, or can the Democrats white-knuckle it to 2016 and win back at least some of the brand loyalty they enjoyed for more than 100 years?" said Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll, a nonpartisan survey conducted by the University of Arkansas.
The state has a rich history of prominent Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, who served as governor, Sens. Dale Bumpers and William Fulbright, and Rep. Wilbur Mills. But Arkansas voters have mostly supported Republicans for president since the 1960s, with the exception of Mr. Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and former Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968.
Today, the political terrain of Arkansas isn't hospitable to the coalition of urban, secular voters who helped put Mr. Obama in the White House. Only one city, Little Rock, has a population of more than 100,000 people. The rest of the state, from the Ozarks in the north and west to the fertile Arkansas Delta of the east, is thoroughly rural. Its population is 80% white.
More than half of residents say they are evangelical Christians, making Arkansas one of the two most evangelical states in the U.S., along with Oklahoma, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center.
beat Mr. Obama here in the 2012 election by 23 percentage points. Even among Democrats, some residents harbor a resentment against Mr. Obama for defeating Hillary Clinton
in the 2008 presidential nominating contest. Mrs. Clinton, who was Arkansas' first lady when her husband was governor, beat Mr. Obama in the Arkansas primary 70% to 26%.
Mr. Clinton headlined an event earlier this year for Mr. Pryor that raised about $1 million, said Erik Dorey, a spokesman for the senator.
Republicans believe Democrats running in 2014 will be hard pressed to distance themselves from criticism of the health-law rollout, as well as the political burden imposed by Mr. Obama's sinking approval ratings.
Mr. Pryor still backs the law but echoes other swing-state Democrats who say it needs fixing. Mr. Pryor supports legislation that would allow people to recover health policies that were canceled because they didn't meet the law's new standards.
The health law was a big part of the political fall of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), who lost her re-election to Republican Rep. John Boozman in 2010. Democrats hope it will be a far smaller political problem by the midterm elections, assuming the government website continues to improve and the law's benefits come to be felt more broadly,
The Arkansas Poll in October found that 33% of adults approved of Mr. Pryor's performance, compared with 51% in 2009. Ms. Parry said the drop could have been part of a broader anti-incumbent backlash after the federal government shutdown. More respondents in the poll blamed Mr. Obama and Democrats than the Republicans for the shutdown.
Mr. Pryor said the anti-Obama wave that elected many Republicans in 2010 and 2012 had peaked, noting that Democrats have a shot at recapturing two House seats in 2014, as well as holding on to the governor's mansion.
"Ever since I've been in Washington people have been telling me how red Arkansas has been," Mr. Pryor said in an interview. "But our state doesn't fit the national paradigm. We are a conservative Democratic state."
Nonetheless, analysts say, Mr. Pryor will benefit by keeping a distance from his party.
"There is a depth of good will for the Pryor name and the entire Pryor family in Arkansas," said Rex Nelson, former political editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and a former GOP political adviser. "But just being a Democrat has been such a weight since President Obama took office. I've never seen a president affect elections as much as this president."
Mr. Pryor's GOP opponent, Mr. Cotton, is making opposition to Mr. Obama and the health-care law the centerpiece of his campaign. His website invites people to report on the troubles they have faced under the new law.
"That law is in many ways a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Obama presidency and senators like Mark Pryor who support it," Mr. Cotton said, speaking at a predawn campaign event at a pancake house in Conway, Ark. "On pretty much every critical matter that comes to the floor of the Senate, Mark Pryor votes with Barack Obama
. He likes to say he puts Arkansas first but in fact he puts Barack Obama first."
Mr. Cotton, running for Senate before finishing his first House term, is testing Arkansans' taste for the tea party's brand of small-government conservatism. Unlike the rest of the state's GOP House delegation, he voted against legislation popular in his state—a farm bill and student loan subsidies—which some supporters say will take some explaining to swing voters.
"We have to get the message out: Tom is standing on conservative principle," said David Meeks, an Arkansas state representative who attended the pancake-restaurant event.
The Pryor campaign wants voters to focus on contrasts with the more-conservative Mr. Cotton. That is how Mr. Pryor picked up support from John Swicegood, a doctor in Fort Smith, Ark. Dr. Swicegood, a lifelong Republican, said he was alienated from his party during the 16-day federal government shutdown in October.
"No one would argue about wanting a balanced budget, but the idea of being that intransigent or just being that far out there began to worry me," said Mr. Swicegood. Friends were surprised by his support of Mr. Pryor, he said.
Democrats hope a retreat by voters from the GOP's tea-party embrace will help the party advance in other 2014 Senate races, including in Kentucky—home to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell
—and in Georgia, which has an open seat.
After the government shutdown, Mr. Pryor launched an ad that sought to highlight his efforts to forge an agreement, portraying himself as a centrist problem solver, while casting Mr. Cotton as a rigid ideologue.
"Cotton and a small group of reckless congressmen took our country to the brink of default. His irresponsible actions weakened our credit and damaged our economy," the ad's narrator said.
Mr. Cotton voted with 86 other House Republicans to support the final compromise bill that reopened the government and extended its borrowing authority.
At the same time, Mr. Pryor is trying to highlight areas of disagreement with the president and the Democratic Party. His first ad focused on Mr. Pryor's vote against a gun-control bill—a top priority of Mr. Obama—that ultimately failed in the Senate. Mr. Pryor was criticized for his vote by a gun control group founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
, which allowed Mr. Pryor to say in the ad: "No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do. I listen to Arkansas."
Outside political groups are spending more campaign money in Arkansas than any other state with a competitive Senate race in 2014, according to Democratic campaign strategists, with the exception of Kentucky.
A conservative group based in Washington, D.C., Judicial Crisis Network, aired an ad in November accusing Mr. Pryor of helping Mr. Obama "pack a key court with new liberal judges," after Mr. Pryor sided with his party on a procedural vote to advance a judicial nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Three weeks later, Mr. Pryor parted ways with his party when the fight over judicial nominations boiled over and Democrats moved to abolish the filibuster for most presidential nominations. Mr. Pryor was one of only three Democrats who voted against the landmark change.
In a speech after the vote, Mr. Pryor said the vote was an example of corrosive partisanship in the Senate, which brought him back to the Bible.
"If you're going to get anything done in Washington," he said, "you're going to have to work together to do it. It's like the book of Isaiah. It says, 'Come now, let us reason together.' "