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.
A new twist occurred July 1 in the U.S. Senate race between Congressman Tom Cotton (R- Dardanelle) and Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark).
In giving his reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores case in which the Supreme Court held that certain religious for-profit corporations may not be required, under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), to pay for their employees’ insurance coverage for contraception, Cotton took a swing at Pryor’s faith.
“It’s another example of how Obamacare infringes on the liberties of all Arkansans.” Cotton said in an interview with KNWA. “Barack Obama and Mark Pryor think that faith is something that only happens at 11 on Sunday mornings. That’s when we worship, but faith is what we live every single day. And the government shouldn’t infringe on the rights of religious liberty. So I’m pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling but it’s just another example of why Obamacare is bad for Arkansas.”
Pryor’s campaign immediately demanded an apology and hit back at Cotton.
“Congressman Cotton owes an apology not just to Mark Pryor, but to all Arkansans of faith who can disagree reasonably about matters of policy without stooping so low as to question someone’s fundamental values,” said Pryor’s spokesman.
Then ensued a series of statements and retorts from the two campaigns, and a media frenzy over what appears to have been tactical moves from Cotton and Pryor.
As we pointed out in one of our previous columns, this U.S. Senate race will be fought and won mostly along the following arguments:
• Don’t re-elect Mark Pryor because he not only voted for Obamacare, but he also voted in support of President Barack Obama’s policies 90% of the time; and
• Don’t elect Tom Cotton to the U.S. Senate because he not only has not achieved any significant policy goal in his very short stint in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he is also bought and paid for by powerful out-of-state special interest groups
At this point of the campaign, the fundamentals of this race have not changed at all. For as long as this race is framed as a referendum on Pryor’s stewardship in office (mostly his vote for Obamacare and his ties to President Obama’s policies) as Cotton would like it to be, Pryor will be in a defensive position and will find it very hard, if not impossible, to get re-elected. On the flip side, if this race is framed as a choice between the folksy and statesman-like personality of Pryor and the seemingly aloof and ‘reckless’ personality of Cotton as Pryor would like it to be, Cotton will be in a defensive position and may miss a golden opportunity to defeat the vulnerable incumbent that Pryor has become.
So, when one looks at the flap over Cotton’s swipe at Pryor’s faith from the prism of the above frames, one could easily understand that Cotton and Pryor made tactical moves to achieve their respective overall strategies. When Cotton gives his satisfaction with the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and immediately invokes Pryor’s ties to President Obama and to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which prompted the above-mentioned court case to begin with, Cotton is making a sound tactical move that is in sync with his overall strategy of making sure that Arkansas voters remember that Pryor supports Obamacare and President Obama whose unpopularity is sky high in Arkansas.
Besides, stoking and tapping into his conservative base that likely agrees with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the above-mentioned court case is a surefire way for Cotton to keep his political base enthusiastic. That enthusiasm is necessary to win in a low-turnout and base-mobilization election that we are likely to see in November. This is why when he caught some flack for making those seemingly beyond-the-pale comments about Pryor’s faith, Cotton made a ‘non-apology apology.’
“Senator Pryor is a man of faith and practices it with commendable openness, which I respect, but I wish he would respect Arkansans’ right to practice our faith. Instead, Senator Pryor and President Obama still defend Obamacare even after the Supreme Court said it violated freedom of religion. … ” Cotton stated. “I simply said that by virtue of his vote for Obamacare, Mark Pryor is infringing on the religious freedom of other Christians or anyone of all faiths who objects to practices like abortion.”
Did Cotton achieve his immediate tactical goal in this small controversy? Not at all Why? Because even though Cotton had a good political instinct to try and stay focused on his overall strategy of trying to defeat Pryor due to this latter’s guilt by association to Obama and Obamacare, Cotton made some unartful comments about Pryor’s faith and created an unnecessary distraction. For, the following news cycles were mostly about Cotton’s comments on Pryor’s faith as opposed to the substantive point that Cotton tried to make, i.e., what this latter considers to be the deleterious effects of Obamacare and the Obama policies that Pryor supports. So, from a purely strategic standpoint, score 0 for Cotton.
… for Tat.
Realizing that the best shot he has at getting re-elected may come only by virtue of his diverting attention from his vote for Obamacare and from his support for Obama’s policies, Pryor felt the tactical need to make an issue out of Cotton’s comments. Casting himself as a victim of Cotton’s verbal “assault,” and demanding an apology from Cotton were tactical ways of making sure that the focus remain on Cotton’s unartful comments on Pryor’s faith instead of on the substance of what Cotton may have meant to say.
Pryor tried to make a jujutsu move and turn Cotton’s verbal assault into a positive reason why Arkansas voters should re-elect Pryor: “I’m disappointed in Congressman Cotton’s deeply personal attack on me. He and I may disagree on issues, but for him to question my faith is out of bounds.” Pryor stated. “From a young age, I have never shied away from talking about the importance of God in my life, and it’s my Christian faith that gives me comfort and guidance to be a steady voice for Arkansas in the Senate.”
Was Pryor successful in achieving his immediate tactical goal? Sure, he was. Why? Because most of the media and the state political class focused their attention on whether Cotton should have questioned Pryor’s faith and not on the substance of Cotton’s comments. And given the current political circumstances that are unfriendly to Democrats in Arkansas, every day that passes without a discussion of Pryor’s support for Obamacare and Obama’s policies appear to be a good day for Pryor. For, surviving one day at the time gives Pryor hope that by keeping the race relatively close until Election Day, he can at least have a chance of defying the odds and execute a very well-oiled Get-Out-The-Votes operation that gets him through the electoral finish line. So, from a purely strategic standpoint, score 1 for Pryor.
Sticking to the Script?
It seems as if the main contenders in this U.S. Senate race have decided to stake out their strategic positions and not budge one iota from these positions. Whenever Pryor or Cotton engages in an action or in a reaction between now and Election Day on Nov. 4, it is very likely that the said (re)action falls within the parameters of their overall strategies as discussed above- unless a major earth-shattering event occurs between now and then to cause a strategic readjustment in the two campaigns.
How is that working so far for the candidates? If one is to believe the latest polling averages from Pollster.com and Realclearpolitics.com, Cotton leads Pryor by an average of 2.6 points and 2.8 points, respectively, which is within the margin of error. At some point, these two candidates may need to get off their campaign’s strategic script for this race to significantly break one way or the other.
We’ll be watching.