*UPDATED WITH RECAP AND REAL-TIME LIVEBLOG NOTES BELOW
YESTERDAY: Cotton was robotic at times in the Conway debate, saying "Obama" 74 times. Will he mix it up tonight?
Incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor
and challenger Rep. Tom Cotton
will face off in a debate in Fayetteville tonight. Unlike yesterday's debate in Conway, which featured the Green and Libertarian candidates, this will be one-on-one affair.
of Talk Business will be the moderator; KATV's Scott Inman, KAIT's Diana Davis, and KHBS/KHOG's Angela Taylor will be on the panel. The debate will be broadcast live on KATV, KATV.com, KAIT in Northeast Arkansas and KHBS/KHOG in Northwest Arkansas. You can watch a livestream here
I predict that Cotton will be stronger tonight than he was yesterday and that he will have at least one zinger zapping back at everyone who made fun of him for saying "Obama" over and over and over (if you haven't already, place your bets — over/under tonight for "Obama" is 100).
Honestly I found this debate hard to watch. I'm guessing lots of people who also watched yesterday's debate feel the same way. There was an awful lot of regurgitating exactly the same arguments we heard yesterday. The same zingers and sentences and rejoinders. Same opening/closing statements, more or less. Same themes. Clearly both candidates believe in their strategies and are sticking with them (also seems like both candidates assumed a bigger audience tonight, so re-hashed the same old zingers for the newcomers — especially Pryor).
Both sides are, of course, claiming victory. I thought Pryor was a bit weaker than he was yesterday and Cotton a bit stronger (I thought Pryor clearly got the better of Cotton yesterday). Partly this was because Pryor was repeating the same things as yesterday, so maybe he seemed zippier to those who skipped yesterday's debate. Cotton again robotically repeated "Obama" but mixed in a few half-baked stories at least and was generally sharper and clearer. (I didn't do an "Obama" count; I thought he went into three digits, but have heard 70-80 from others who kept track.) He was often dead-on lying, but he did so with confidence and more rhetorical cohesion than the automated drift of yesterday. Meanwhile, I actually thought Pryor lost just a bit of the laser focus on Cotton's policy shortcomings he had yesterday. The attack on the billionaires must be polling well, but after a while, it started to sound like the mirror image of Cottons' "Obama" tic. Pryor spent a lot of minutes tying everything back to the billionaire backers — but at some point, the theory of why
Cotton wants to enact his agenda is less vital than the what that agenda does
: cut everything, slash the safety net, and slash funds coming in to help Arkansans. I'm imagining a voter watching these guys for the first time and hearing "billionaires" and "Obama" back and forth and just falling into a haze.
If I know the media, the focus tomorrow will be on one exchange. Pressed to define the middle class, Pryor said up to $200,000. He meant $200,000 at the north end, and presumably he was referring to something like brackets in federal tax policy, (this was the line in the sand for Obama's no middle-class tax-increase promise, you might recall, but only a small fraction of Americans make more). But this was just a bad answer — an unforced error by Pryor — and Cotton pounced. He said Pryor must be the one hanging out with out of state billionaires if he thinks $200,000 is middle class. An off-the-cuff zinger. Two points. Cotton's policy agenda
is to slash benefits for low-to-moderate income people and cut taxes for the rich, but the zinger is easier to encapsulate than a policy debate, and this helps shield Cotton by making Pryor look like he's the one who's out of touch. We're going to see this in a million ads. (Will this actually matter as much as Republicans salivating seem to think? Well, probably not, but they'll give it a go, and Pryor gave them an opening to try.)
Less sexy for media coverage, but two problems for Cotton stood out: He said everything was just fine and dandy for people with pre-existing conditions before Obamacare. Expect some ads on this one. And he continued to absolutely refuse to answer anything about what would happen to the 200,000 Arkansans who would lose their private option coverage if he repealed Obamacare. A better media than the one we have would be screaming from the hilltops and calling him to account for what really amounts to a lie by flagrant, finger-in-the-ears omission. This outrageous refusal to be truthful and upfront about what his policy platform would actually do is making him look ridiculous and dishonest. But, of course, perhaps being "against Obamacare" is enough, even if he won't admit what that actually means.
Plenty of lies and sophistry from Cotton: the tired old canard about Obamacare cutting hundreds of millions in Medicare benefits; rhetorical sleights of hand to dodge the fact that Cotton voted, clear as can be, to cut benefits and raise the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare (regardless of how much he loves his parents); some gobbledygook about Obama wanting to control student loans when Cotton simply voted to cut funding for student loans; long-debunked whoppers about Obamacare "special privileges" for Hill staffers; the non-sequitur about Medicaid block granting when asked about the private option (Cotton voted to repeal the private option funding AND to use block grants to slash funding for the existing pre-PO Medicaid program, including ARKids); the utterly outrageous claim that it was really Pryor who shut down the government, not Cotton; the claim that Obama was helping the rich whereas Cotton's policies would help working people...I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting. (Here's an early fact-checker's report card
: half-truths, lies, and pants-on-fire lies.)
There will be plenty on the blog, I'm sure, in the coming days re: how much b.s. is seeping through the claims in the above paragraph. But sometimes spewing b.s. with confidence and clarity helps a politician in a televised debate. The name of the game is appealing to undecided voters, not partisans who know the issues inside and out. True, Cotton's rhetorical style remains awkward and cold at times, but he was notably better than yesterday. Maybe I'm just tired and the robo-candidate has worn me out, but I thought he misled and bamboozled with real strength and vigor this time around.
The attempt by Pryor to shame Cotton in the culture wars because he went to Harvard bummed me out. The point about student loans was fair, but Pryor seemed to be angling for more. A tad ugly.
One other small miscue: Pryor kind of flubbed the moment when asked about when he broke with party lines. He laughed and said he's done it a million times, but didn't give an example even when pressed. This wasn't hard (guns, energy, federal minimum wage, etc.). He should have prepped for that one. Cotton meanwhile didn't give an example either. Kind of funny, because he really does break with the House GOP caucus all the time! They're not right-wing enough for him, like on the Farm Bill, disaster relief, shutdown, draconian Republican Study Committee bill, and more. He's so extreme he's independent — an island all his own.
Who won? As I said yesterday, that's almost a meaningless question when it comes to these. I thought Pryor had the clear upper hand yesterday. Today was more muddled but I'm guessing Team Cotton might be a little happier than Team Pryor (though Pryor's campaign may still view the last 48 hours as a net positive — depends on whether the "middle class" thing does any damage).
Will these two events tip things either way? Unlikely. If "Obama bad" wins the day, Cotton is going to win. That was true before these debates and it's true afterwards. What the debates did is give Pryor the opportunity to make the case to Arkansas voters for approaching the election a different way than an up-down vote on Obama. For looking at Cotton's votes and what his agenda would mean for people in Arkansas. For making the election a choice between Obama hatred and Tea Party ideology versus bread and butter issues. Pryor will protect the social safety net and try to keep federal dollars flowing to Arkansas; Cotton will plant his feet firmly in the Hell No Caucus. It's a stark choice, and for all the noise, that stark choice is clear in the broad themes of these debates.
Overall, Pryor beat expectations and debated pretty well these last two days. Cotton said Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama. I tease, but truth is, in Arkansas maybe that's enough.
After the jump, my real-time liveblog notes.
Roby Brock said he spoke with both Cotton and Pryor's mamas to find out how to keep them in line.
Pryor again starts with "Arkansas Comes First." He said Arkansas is in his heart, whereas Cotton got a bunch of checks from our-of-state billionaires. Pryor lists all of the times Cotton has voted for cuts to funds that would come to Arkansas. Says he's listening to Arkansans, Cotton listens to billionaires.
Cotton says Obamacare is a disaster, he grew up on a farm, served in the military, and he is expecting a child with his wife Anna. Says Pryor votes with Obama 93 percent of the time. This is almost the same as his opening yesterday.
Candidates give rah-rah answers to funding for the 188th Fighter Wing at the Forth Smith Air National Guard Station in Fort Smith. Cotton talks about Obama. Pryor talks about bringing home the bacon to Fort Smith.
Asked about Walmart dropping health insurance for part-time workers, Pryor talks about the value of the private option. He repeats what he said yesterday: wants to make changes to Obamacare, but wants to keep consumer protections and benefits of law. Cotton says workers at Walmart lost their insurance because of Obamacare. That's a bit of a reach, but most low-wage workers will be better off because of Walmart's decision. In many cases that employer-sponsored insurance was unaffordable, and they'll get much better deals via Obamacare subsidies. Plus the potential for higher wages. Pryor says Cotton "doesn't have any solution to people with pre-existing conditions." Cotton says people with pre-existing conditions were doing just fine before Obamacare.
Cotton and Pryor repeat the same debate over the Farm Bill and food stamps that we've heard a million times. Pryor does add one note that's important: the Farm Bill already cut
hundreds of millions from Food Stamps. Cotton says he grew up on a farm so he knows best. Pryor says that Cotton is listening to billionaires, and notes that Cotton was the only one in the Arkansas congressional delegation to vote against the Farm Bill.
Mark Pryor says he wants to build the economy from the middle class up. Repeats line on this from yesterday. Cotton says he's met a lot of middle class people on the campaign trail and it's all Obama's fault.
Pryor strategy: repeat zingers from yesterday.
Cotton strategy: say "Obama" over and over, just like yesterday, but sorta-kinda add stories.
Pryor says that middle class is up to $200,000. Cotton says Pryor is hanging out with out of state billionaires if he thinks $200k is middle class. Well, if a single exchange is going to define this debate, it might have been that one, and Cotton got the better of him.
Cotton REFUSES to say what would happen to 200,000 people on the private option and 40,000 people on the Marketplace if he succeeded in repealing Obamacare. Pryor quotes Reagan, "there he goes again," as Cotton "insists on taking [coverage] away" from private option beneficiaries. Cotton dodges, bobs, weaves, and offers up lame answer of block granting Medicaid. This would NOT cover the 240,000 people who would lose their coverage in Arkansas if the private option was repealed. In fact, Cotton has voted to BOTH eliminate the private option AND implement block granting that would bring massive cuts to the existing, pre-Obamacare Medicaid program, including programs for kids like ARKids. More on this soon...
*My live feed just cut out for a moment so I missed just a minute. Cotton explains why he opposes funding for student loans: Obama. Pryor: "he doesn't have an answer for that...because of his votes." Pryor notes that he Cotton went to Harvard and says that Cotton brags that he went to Harvard with help from financial aid.
Pryor says that Cotton opposes infrastructure because of the billionaires. "They say jump, he says how high." This billionaires thing is getting old. "Infrastructure means jobs," he says. Cotton says that the state shouldn't ask the feds for infrastructure spending. Heh. Pryor supports funding for I-49, notes that Senate has done earmark reform. "I want to finish I-49, I-69 and I-55," as well as work on the Arkansas River — says these infrastructure investments will bring jobs to Arkanas.
Pryor says that they balanced the budget under Bill Clinton with "discipline and good old Arkansas arithmetic." Says we need to focus on growth. "Let's focus on jobs and the economy. Let's build that middle class."
Cotton says Pryor voted for Obama Obama Obama. Cotton tells story about boy named Levi. Cotton did not properly explain macroeconomic forecasting to young Levi, but cute story.
"You all know me and you know I am serious about [reducing deficit]," Pryor says. He focuses on middle class and small business, Cotton votes to help the wealthy. (Pryor is really banking on this "y'all know me" thing.)
Cotton says rich people have done well in Obama-Pryor economy, working people are struggling. Jujitsu! Ha.
Cotton tells story about his mom teaching. He doesn't like Common Core. Ugh — this is just populist demagoguery. Cotton doing better job at building narratives tonight though. Pryor says Cotton has voted to cut education because of the billionaires.
Pryor says he votes against party all the time. Says he opposed government shutdown, Cotton supported. Pryor says he helped broker the deal to end shutdown. Says he has reputation of working across party lines. Cotton says he votes with Obama 93 percent of the time. Awkwardly, Pryor doesn't specify when he votes against the party line. Pryor says he was ranked one of the most independent senators. Cotton won't say anything at all about any time he has voted against his party (though he has, as an even more extreme right-wing outlier even within the Republican House caucus.
Cotton with some lies about special Obama perks and claims that it was really Pryor who shut down the government. Whopper. Whatever.
Cotton says his mom and dad are on Social Security and Medicare. Says he won't hurt them. Doesn't mention he voted for bills to raise eligibility age and cut benefits. He is b.s.'ing with more confidence tonight.
Cotton repeats tired old lie about Obamcare cutting $700 billion from Medicare (actually provider reimbursement cuts). Pryor hits back — says he "cut waste and overpayment for insurance companies" and accurately notes that Cotton banked those very same cuts in budgets he voted for and used them to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.
Cotton again slams Pryor on saying that $200,000 was middle class. If I know the media, they'll focus on that tomorrow.
Cotton says Pryor can't hold president accountable for VA, Ebola, and, well, everything. Pryor says he has passed 13 pieces of legislation to help military and people in uniform. "I'd put my record against anybody," he says. Cotton tells story about his dad. Blames Obama. Pryor Obama Pryor Obama Pryor Obama.
"I will make no changes to current [beneficiaries of Medicare and Social Security]," Cotton says. Doesn't mention that benefit cuts are coming to people retiring a bit later. He is going to cut Social Security and Medicare. Just not right away.
Cotton's close: he grew up on a farm, is expecting a baby boy, and Pryor is a rubber stamp for Obama.
Pryor: "He's running against one man but I'm voting for 3 million Arkansans. ... You all know me. I'm about hard work. I don't hold a lot of press conferences. Year after year I'm selected as one of the most independent senators in Washington." Again lists all the stuff Cotton voted to cut, or voted against.