Columns » Jay Barth

At ease, congressman


FROM 'AT EASE': Cotton and his former drill sergeant image
  • FROM 'AT EASE': Cotton and his former drill sergeant.

The 2014 U.S. Senate race has already produced its share of campaign advertisement "celebrities," with more to certainly join them through their omnipresence on Arkansas television screens: Tom Cotton's mother, Mark Pryor's Bible and America for Prosperity's "Wanda" and "Jerry." They were joined this week by another as Tom Cotton's U.S. Senate campaign released its second ad emphasizing the congressman's military service.

"At Ease" features Cotton in banter with his basic training drill sergeant, "Sgt. Norton." After noting that Sgt. George Norton "taught me how to be a soldier" and the values that accompany such service, the ad closes with a red, white and blue bootprint stamping the screen with "Cotton. Senate." For a variety of reasons, it's probably the most effective ad of the Senate campaign to date.

There's little doubt that the Cotton team had the spot's theme in mind since the campaign began, but a couple of things propelled the ad to production now. First, in one of the campaign's rare unscripted moments, Sen. Pryor stated his frustration with Cotton's "sense of entitlement that he gives off ... almost like, 'I served my country, let me into the Senate' " in a national television interview last month. The Cotton campaign knew it must take advantage of that relatively minor misstep before it became stale, and Cotton begins the ad by restating the Pryor quote. Second, the ad comes at a time when a series of polls have shown that Pryor has fended off months and millions of dollars of attack ads, primarily centered on Obamacare, and remains more than competitive in the race. The Cotton campaign clearly felt that the race needed a jolt of energy going into the political doldrums that accompany Arkansas's summer heat.

While those factors may explain the timing of the ad, it is the campaign spot's skilled deployment of military imagery that makes it successful. In Arkansas, only a handful of political symbols have the ability to move the electorate through their emotional resonance with the state's voters. With well over nine in 10 Arkansans viewing the American military very favorably, military imagery is one of them. (We will see just how potent the symbol is in "Colonel" Conrad Reynolds's race for Congress in the Second District.) The emphasis on basic training in the advertisement simultaneously connects with many Arkansans' experiences with the military and emphasizes again that Cotton chose the toughest route into the Army rather than a cushier point of entry that his educational background would have allowed.

More importantly, the ad, which follows on the holiday ad featuring Avis Cotton's testimonial for the Cotton family commitment to military service, highlights Cotton more prominently than any to date and he shows comfort in front of the camera that he's often lacked in public settings. The congressman's personally detached style on the campaign trail has raised some question marks in a state that places such value on candidates' personality, but in this piece Cotton successfully combines a bit of self-deprecation and some natural joshing with the drill sergeant. No matter how ill at ease Cotton remains in public settings, tens of thousands more Arkansans will see him perform ably in "At Ease."

Despite its strength, the ad does come with one big risk. While gender gaps are now common in general elections — with Democrats performing well among women but poorly among men — the Cotton/Pryor match threatens to produce a gender chasm, as John Brummett discussed in his weekend column. The Cotton campaign's hypermasculine emphasis on military (the bootprint now shows itself on the campaign website), combined with the ongoing Pryor outreach to women voters on issues such as Cotton's votes against the Violence Against Women Act and Paycheck Fairness Act, promises to expand the significant gender gap emerging in the race even before this ad (the most recent Talk Business/Hendrix College poll showed Pryor holding a 10-point lead with women; Cotton had a 7-point lead with male voters.) While it's obvious that the new ad was developed by guys for guys, it's likely to fall flatter with women. With recent history showing that women are more likely to show up to vote in Arkansas, making this race a referendum on gender brings with it some significant risks for the Cotton campaign.

Add a comment