Sen. Mark Pryor is in the fight of his political career, with prognosticators dubbing Arkansas the state likeliest in 2014 to reject a sitting Democratic senator in favor of a Republican challenger.
After 12 years in the Senate and an earlier stint as state attorney general, Pryor — the son of popular former governor and senator David Pryor — is in a statistical dead heat with his certain Republican challenger, freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton.
With just a year before they meet at the ballot box, a recent Arkansas Poll, conducted by the University of Arkansas, showed Pryor with 34 percent among likely voters, Cotton 32 percent, and the rest undecided.
How can such a durable a politician as Pryor be locked in a tight contest with a so fresh a figure as 36-year-old Cotton, who would be his state's first senator to have served just one term in the House since Democrat J. William Fulbright won his Senate seat in 1944?
Part of Pryor's precarious political situation has to do with being closely identified with President Barack Obama and his administration at a time when the Razorback State is trending increasingly Republican.
The senator supported both the Obama-backed economic stimulus plan in 2009 and the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
Possibly aware of problems his record may bring him politically, Pryor earlier this year opposed tightening background checks for gun purchases, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
A week ago, the Arkansas lawmaker again broke ranks with the White House by joining with fellow Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, calling for the president to delay Obamacare's mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance.
One seasoned observer of Arkansas politics is skeptical as to whether this position will help Pryor.
"No, the delay won't help Sen. Pryor or any Democrats here in '14," political blogger and Arkansas Democrat Gazette columnist Rex Nelson told Newsmax. "The well is too poisoned. Anyone closely associated with Obamacare or the president will be in big trouble in Arkansas or states like it."
Nelson noted the modern trend in Arkansas toward the Republican Party that began under the 10-year governorship of Mike Huckabee, from 1996-2007.
Today, Republicans hold all four of the state's U.S. House districts, the other U.S. Senate seat, and have majorities in both houses of the state legislature.
With Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe stepping down, the Arkansas Poll showed likely Republican nominee and past state party chairman Asa Hutchinson defeating likely Democratic nominee and former Rep. Mike Ross by a margin of 32 percent to 30 percent statewide.
The other factor in sente the race is Tom Cotton himself.
While Fulbright had a distinguished career as college football star, scholar, and president of the University of Arkansas before his single term in Congress, Cotton has forged his own path as a graduate of Harvard Law School, a Bronze Star recipient in the U.S. Army with duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an attorney and business consultant.
While voting as a down-the-line conservative on everything from rolling back the food stamp program to supporting a continuing resolution and defunding Obamacare, the soldier-congressman has an engaging and positive style much like that of Huckabee.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax
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