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Pryor-Cotton and U.S. Senate control, part I

political analysis by Dr. Williams Yamkam

Editor's note: This commentary is part of a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and The City Wire to deliver an ongoing series of political-based essays and reports. Dr. Williams Yamkam is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith where he teaches multiple political science courses including a course on campaigns and elections. Besides the various professional trainings that he has received in campaign operations, he is a graduate of American University’s Campaign Management Institute in Washington, D.C.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

6 is the ‘magical’ number that will dominate the national political discourse throughout this electoral year. 6 is the ‘magical’ number of additional seats that national Republicans will have to win this coming November in order to control the U.S. Senate and coordinate with the very likely Republican U.S. House of Representatives to have a bigger impact on policy outcomes – at least until November 2016, when a general election is slated to take place.

With 55 Democrats (in fact 53 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats) and 45 Republicans, power in the U.S. Senate can only change hands if and only if Republicans win at least 6 additional seats – winning 5 seats puts Republicans into a tie with democrats and Vice President Joe Biden will likely break the tie in favor of the Democrats.

Of the 36 U.S. Senate seats (33 regularly-scheduled elections and 3 mid-term vacancies) that are up for contention this year, only a total of 12 seats are considered to be truly up for grabs at this point. Of those 12 seats, assuming that the Republicans successfully defend the two competitive seats (Georgia and Kentucky) that are now in their column, the republicans can and do have a clear roadmap to garnering the additional six seats that they need to control the U.S. Senate.

At this juncture of the campaign, the six seats that the Republicans have the best shot at snatching from the democrats are West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana,  Louisiana, North Carolina, and … Arkansas. Hence, the great deal of national attention that the Arkansas U.S. Senate race is getting from national pundits, national parties, outside groups, and national media outlets that have sent reporters to the Natural State.

Given the importance that Arkansas currently has in determining what party will have control of the U.S. Senate and thus impacting policy outcomes for at least the next two years, it becomes evident why U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor’s campaign, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton’s campaign, and the outside groups that are supporting their respective campaigns have been preening their ‘ammunitions’, and testing their messages, mostly via TV ads, in Arkansas over the past few months. As explained in our previous post, the message that the Pryor campaign, the Cotton campaign, and the outside groups that are supporting their respective campaigns have been emphasizing centers around each of the candidate’s ‘Achilles’ heel’: Pryor’s vote for the Affordable Care Act a.k.a. Obamacare and Cotton’s entanglement in problematic relationships with deep-pocketed and out-of-state interest groups.

Since the middle of last year when this U.S. Senate race began to take shape, the campaigns have gone through three main stages: The warning shots, the (Re) introduction, and the Framing of the opponent.

During the warning shots stage, the campaigns and their respective supporters ran negative ads attacking the opposing candidate. The fact that at the onset of this anticipated U.S. Senate race no credible candidate was even rumored to challenge Pryor or Cotton in their respective parties’ primaries, made it essential and easier for both campaigns and their supporters to immediately begin the ‘hostilities’ so as to warn the opposing side about the brutal nature of the campaign that will unfold.

After an opening salvo of attack ads targeting his opponent’s record or lack thereof, each of the two candidates moved to the (re) introduction stage so as to (re) introduce himself to Arkansans. In November of 2013, Cotton solicited his mom’s help to introduce himself to Arkansans, via a 30 second-TV ad, as a selfless patriot who has ‘a passion to serve our country.”

The following month, Pryor took advantage of the holiday seasons to run his much talked about TV ad in which he holds the Bible, the “North Star”, to tout his Christian faith as the compass for his conduct in office.

The campaigns are now at the stage where they want to aggressively frame the opponent in a negative way. At this stage, the goal is to take advantage of the low political intensity of the moment to negatively define the opponent in a way that will stick in the voters’ mind and make it hard to undo.

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In that vein, although campaigns cannot legally coordinate with outside groups, the Cotton Campaign, the Pryor campaign, and the outside groups that support them have been separately and consistently running ads to define the opposing candidate: Pryor is consistently defined as the man who helped make Obamacare a reality and Cotton is consistently tied to special interest groups whose interests are not necessarily aligned to the interests of Arkansas.

In a few days, we’ll follow up with the “strategic battle” between the Pryor and Cotton campaigns.

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