(GILLETT, Ark.) — The front line in the fight for control of the Senate is in Arkansas.
Sen. Mark Pryor has a golden name in Democratic politics. For 16 years, he’s been on a statewide ballot, rising from attorney general to the U.S. Senate. When he ran for re-election to a second term in 2008, he received 80 percent of the vote. Republicans didn’t field a challenger.
Not so this year.
“I don’t want to be cocky about it,” Pryor told This Week. “I know I have a hard race on my hands and I completely understand what I’m up against here.”
He’s up against Rep. Tom Cotton, elected in 2012. Republicans see him as a rising conservative star and a leading prospect to take down a sitting Democratic senator.
“I would say I’m in a hurry,” Cotton told This Week, speaking about his fast rise. “I’ve been in Washington for a year now and I’ve seen a lot of problems that need to be fixed. And someone should be in a hurry to fix them because we’re $17 trillion in debt.”
Republicans are planting high hopes in Arkansas. The party needs only six seats to win control of the Senate.
As he seeks a third term in the Senate, Pryor is dogged by President Obama’s health care law. He has sharply criticized the execution of the Affordable Care Act, but stands by his vote for it.
“I think the administration did a terrible job rolling it out,” Pryor said.” “I mean they’ve admitted that. It was awful. I was stunned at how bad it was.”
Yet Pryor said he does not believe the individual health care mandate taking effect March 31st should be delayed.
“Well, let me say this, I want the legislation to work,” he said. “I do think there are definitely ways to work on the legislation that don’t completely undermine the bill, you know, or the new law.”
As for Cotton, he stands out, even among the state’s four other Republican Congressmen. He voted against one version of the Farm Bill, over objections to food stamp spending. He also opposed student loan aid and emergency flood relief, all of which Pryor has seized upon to help shape the argument that Cotton is extreme.
“One thing that we see with my opponent is that not only is he out of step with Arkansas, he’s out of step with Arkansas Republicans,” Pryor said. “I’m a more old school senator. I want to work in a very bipartisan way.”
A key hurdle facing Cotton is whether he can withstand the scrutiny now shining on his race, even as he follows in the path of another young man from Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
“It certainly got me interested in politics,” Cotton said. “It was really my first time to think much about politics or government.”
He may have drawn his inspiration from Clinton, but not his ideology.
In Congress, Cotton’s been called one of the new faces of the “Hell No, Caucus,” a label he embraces.
“Well, I would like to say yes,” Cotton said. “But if the president continues to propose higher taxes and more spending, continues to grant unlawful waivers on Obamacare, then I will be saying no.”
The race will help determine whether Southern Democrats, already endangered, are at risk of becoming extinct.
The state’s most popular Democrat, Gov. Mike Bebbe, who finishes his term this year, says the party’s brand is bruised. Asked whether it was a difficult year to be a Democrat, he replied: “It’s tough. It’s tough, but the Pryor name is a great name.”
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
Deirdre Walsh and Eugene Scott, CNN
Stephen Collinson, CNN
Jennifer Rizzo, CNN
Scott Stuntz, Teton Valley News