First-term Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton announced Tuesday he's challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, setting up what's expected to be one of the most expensive and heated U.S. Senate races in the country next year.
Cotton, 36, made his run official in front of supporters in his hometown of Dardanelle. He's the first Republican to announce a bid to unseat Pryor, who has served two terms and is widely viewed by the GOP as the most vulnerable Senate incumbent on the ballot next year.
The former management consultant, who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, was elected in November to represent Arkansas' 4th Congressional District, which stretches across the western and southern parts of the state. Pryor was first elected to the Senate in 2002.
"I'm running because I think Arkansas deserves a senator who stands with them and not with Barack Obama," Cotton told The Associated Press before his announcement speech. "Mark Pryor, by his voting record over the last four and a half years, has proven that he now stands with Barack Obama, not with Arkansas."
The campaign to unseat Pryor has already been well under way in Arkansas, with groups on the right and the left blitzing the state with television ads targeting the incumbent lawmaker. The groups airing ads against Pryor include the Club for Growth, which backed Cotton's congressional bid last year and has indicated it's prepared to assist him in the Senate campaign as well.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has aired TV spots criticizing Pryor for voting against expanded background checks for firearms purchases. Pryor used his television ad of the campaign to respond to the group's criticism.
The ad blitz in Arkansas also focused on Cotton as he mulled a Senate run, with two Democratic political action committees running a spot accusing the congressman of seeking the national limelight at the expense of his constituents.
Pryor moved quickly to criticize Cotton after word of his expected run emerged last week, accusing the Republican lawmaker of alienating students, farmers and women since joining Congress in January. Pryor also launched a 60-second TV ad on Tuesday blasting Cotton's votes, while the state Democratic Party has created a website calling the congressman "reckless."
Pryor continued going after Cotton ahead of his announcement and said the Republican's votes showed he "lost touch" with Arkansas.
"The bottom line is he's not voting for us," Pryor told the AP on Tuesday. "I don't know who he's voting for, but it's not the people of Arkansas."
Pryor and Democrats have criticized Cotton for voting against the farm bill over objections to funding for the food stamp program. Cotton, who was the only Arkansas House member to vote against the farm bill, later voted for a revised version of the legislation that didn't include funding for food stamps.
Cotton dismissed the criticism, saying that Pryor had ignored the state's voters by supporting the federal health care overhaul.
"That's a sad and desperate attempt by a panicked politician to cling to power," Cotton said. "If anyone has alienated the people of Arkansas, it's Mark Pryor."
Cotton has also come under fire for voting against a student loan bill that was given final approval by the House last week.
Pryor is the only Democrat in the state's Washington delegation after Republicans made major gains in the state over the past two elections. The GOP won control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction in the November election, and swept all four of the state's U.S. House seats.
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