By John C. Davis
What a difference six years can make. In 2014, Tom Cotton, then a Republican U.S. Representative, ran against Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, a two-term incumbent, former Arkansas Attorney General and son to one of Arkansas’s most prominent public officials in the 20th Century—former U.S. House of Representative, Governor, and U.S. Senator David Pryor. Given the strategic importance of the seat to Democrats seeking to hold their majority in the U.S. Senate, and the remarkable fundraising networks of both candidates, this was an incredibly expensive race for a relatively small-population state. Early on, the contest was not a forgone conclusion, though all indications were that it would be a tough seat for Democrats to hold. Mark Pryor was first elected in to the U.S. Senate in 2002 after defeating incumbent Tim Hutchinson—the first GOP Senator popularly elected in Arkansas. Pryor shared the last name of another highly regarded former public servant, enjoyed the support of Arkansans in two past Senate contests—in 2002 and in 2008 (when a Republican candidate didn’t even file to run against him). However, in 2014, Pryor faced a formidable opponent, an Arkansas native, military veteran with an ivy league pedigree and a particularly strong following among conservative academic circles and national thought leaders.
The end result of this particularly heated race, which featured an unprecedented barrage of campaign dollars going to ad buys from both sides, was a victory for Tom Cotton over Mark Pryor, 56.5% to 39.4%. A solid victory for Tom Cotton and Republicans, who had only very recently begun to make significant gains in one of the last Southern states to remain a Democratic stronghold into the 21st Century.
The race in 2014 was significant in many ways. First, nationally, it resulted in another GOP victory in an election cycle where they would claim the U.S. Senate majority. Symbolically, the win was particularly sweet for Republicans as, up to that point, this Senate seat had been one of only a few in the South held by a Democratic incumbent. Back in Arkansas, this contest served, as it would turn out, as the final match for the political balance of the state. The casual observer might forget, but only a few years earlier, Democrats could claim the Governorship, majorities in both the state’s House and Senate (chambers that had remained under Democratic control since Reconstruction), three out of four U.S. House of Representatives, and both U.S. Senators. Even after Republican gains in 2010, Arkansas remained largely Democratic. Following election night 2014, however, Republicans would claim the Governor’s Mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, and all four U.S. House seats, expanded majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, and all other state constitutional offices—a breathtaking shift in partisan preference in Arkansas on display.
Cotton’s re-election bid in 2020 is a stark reminder of the dramatic partisan shift in Arkansas, the remarkable strength of the Republican brand in the state, and a state Democratic Party in disarray. Recall from earlier, in 2008, the incumbent Democratic candidate for re-election to the same U.S. Senate seat faced no GOP opposition. Now, in 2020, Senator Cotton will face no major party opponent and, thus, likely enjoy a similar stroll to re-election.
Today, Cotton is one of the most visible and polarizing Senators in the country. A regular on national news programs, the junior senator from Arkansas recently penned an Op-Ed for the New York Times advocating for the use of the military to address the civil unrest arising after the killing of George Floyd. Regardless of one’s views on the use of military force on civilians, the opinion piece—and the debate and attention it garnered—is another reminder of Senator Cotton’s ascendance among Republican ranks and his growing public profile among GOP supporters.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Arkansas don’t have a candidate to challenge him in November. After enthusiastically campaigning for months, Joshua Mahony filed to run against Senator Cotton as a Democrat, only to drop out moments after filing ended—effectively preventing his party from finding another candidate to compete in his place. At the time of Mahony’s shocking departure from the race, the former candidate cited health issues within his family as the reason for dropping out. However, reporting from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette led to speculation of other, campaign-related reasons for his dropping out. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains, that Senator Cotton now faces no major party opponent in 2020—a very different environment than he found himself in 2014.
Then again, politically, Arkansas is a very different environment today than it was just a few election cycles ago.