Columns » Max Brantley

Beware of your TV, Pryor and Cotton are coming for you

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Our print deadline fell before the beginning of the free barbecue in Dardanelle at which Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton was to announce his challenge of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor.

I'm already depressed thinking about the avalanche of 30-second TV ads soon to descend on Arkansas. The campaigns themselves will spend millions. Millions more will be spent by other groups, some more shadowy than others. Most will intone end-of-the-world predictions about one candidate or the other.

We likely will get a taste of positive politics. If Pryor indeed has no primary opposition, he might spend some millions with some aw-shucks footage of Mark Pryor, his famous father and his undeniably pleasant demeanor. Cotton will spend some time talking about his Yell County boyhood. You may be sure he'll say a lot about his Army experience, with high-power weaponry on frequent display.

But the news will mostly be bad. Negative advertising moves more voters than positive advertising and that's how the election will be won — moving undecided voters.

Cotton's entry was heralded by release of a poll done for AFSCME, the public employees union. It showed Pryor leading Cotton, 43-35. But that's a good distance short of 50 percent. Worse was Pryor's favorability rating. It stood at 47-34 positive. Not as bad as Blanche Lincoln before her ill-fated re-election race, perhaps, but a sharp decline from 63-23 six years earlier. Republicans have spent millions beating him up. He's also hurt by being yoked to Congress and President Obama. Democrats, Republicans and Obama are all viewed more unfavorably than favorably by Arkansas voters, Obama worst of all. 55 percent of those surveyed said they were less like to vote for someone who voted for the Affordable Care Act, as Mark Pryor did. Evidence of the benefits of that law is growing, but time runs short to turn opinion by 2014.

Republican strategy is simple. Mark Pryor will become a name synonymous with Barack Obama and Obamacare. What will Democrats do about Tom Cotton? Tear him down, too. His favorable rating is only 28-22 because so few people, relatively speaking, know him well. But those unfavorables are already fairly high for an unknown and they'll go higher.

Democrats have unveiled a website (meettomcotton.com) with a simple theme — Tom Cotton: Too Reckless for Arkansas.

There's much to work with. Cotton would turn Medicare into a voucher program, inevitably reducing benefits. He'd privatize Social Security. He voted against the bill to reduce the cost of student college loans, though he enjoyed government-backed loan help when he went to Harvard. He voted against disaster aid for hurricane victims. He's voted repeatedly against the interests of women — in the military, in equal pay, in medical autonomy. He voted against the farm bill and wants to slash food stamps, heavily used in Arkansas. Then there's Obamacare. Cotton would kill it. He'd kill it even though his paid political director, Rep. John Burris, was an architect of the "private option" version of Obamacare passed by the Arkansas legislature. Ending Obamacare would devastate the private option and leave hundreds of thousands of Arkansans suffering.

The list is not an exaggeration or caricature of his record. It's fair game for attack. Cotton really believes he can do more for Arkansas by seeing to it that the federal government does far less, particularly by attacking the president's groundbreaking initiative to move the U.S. toward universal health care.

But do I really want to hear about it for 14 months?

The prospect puts me in mind of the John Prine song: Blow up your TV.

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