With less than a single term in the House, Rep. Tom Cotton (R) hasn't compiled an extensive voting record, but Arkansas Democrats are hoping at least one vote -- his opposition to the farm bill last month -- could help sink a potential Senate bid by the freshman lawmaker as he contemplates a challenge to two-term Sen. Mark Pryor (D).
Republicans have made Pryor's seat -- the only one still held by a Democrat in Arkansas' six-seat congressional delegation -- a top target as the party looks to flip six seats to regain a majority in the Senate in the 114th Congress.
Airwaves in the Razorback State have already begun to fill with advertisements from third-party groups, including spots from the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Action that hit Pryor for his ties to President Obama, who lost the state badly in the both the 2008 and 2012 elections.
Pryor also faces criticism from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's (I) political action committee over his opposition to gun control measures that Bloomberg has been promoting.
But Pryor's allies have themselves gone on the attack.
A recent television spot by Patriot Majority USA and Senate Majority disparages Cotton for "seeking the national limelight" since he won election last year and for supporting a budget plan by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that Democrats argue would slash Medicare.
Cotton has yet to announce whether he'll actually challenge Pryor -- "Congressman Cotton is focused on his work in the House right now; there will be a time for politics, but it's not right now," spokeswoman Caroline Rabbitt told E&E Daily last week -- but is widely expected to do so.
The 36-year-old Republican lawmaker is a favorite of tea party activists following his election to the House last year to succeed retiring Rep. Mike Ross (D) and is expected to have the support of groups like the Club for Growth if he runs.
In anticipation of that bid, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also begun to take aim at Cotton, including slamming his bid against the farm bill last month, when the measure, H.R. 1947, unexpectedly failed in the House due to a surprising level of Republican opposition.
"What it shows is that he's siding with special interests over farmers and ranchers in Arkansas, and it also shows just how far to the right he is in the state's delegation," said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky, referring to votes in favor of the bill by the state's other three GOP lawmakers.
"He was a guy without an island on this vote, he was alone. He was to the right of everyone in the delegation," Barasky added. "That's why people like Pryor. He puts the state ahead of party. Cotton's doing the opposite here."
In an op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last month, Cotton explained his opposition to the measure, noting his own family's background as cattle ranchers and their Dardanelle, Ark., farm.
Echoing the arguments of fiscal conservatives who oppose the bill, Cotton criticized its $939 billion cost over a 10-year period and the inclusion of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.
"In truth, the Farm Bill should be called the Food Stamp Bill. Many Arkansans may not realize that nearly 80 percent of spending in the Farm Bill goes toward nutrition programs -- primarily food stamps," Cotton wrote. He later added, "The bill's emphasis on food stamps made the needs of Arkansas farmers an afterthought."
Cotton also disputed assessments that the bill would have cut food stamp programs by nearly $20.5 billion, arguing that the reductions are based on "an artificial baseline."
The Arkansas lawmaker added that a "better bill" would separate the farm subsidies and food stamp programs, although he did not specifically say he would support such a measure.
Despite Democrats' early criticisms, Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said he doubted Cotton's vote would damage a Senate bid, should he opt into the race.
"I think the vast majority of Arkansans are virulently opposed to the failed Obama agenda, and so they'll support Tom Cotton's vote against expanding Obama's food stamp entitlement program," Keller said.
Keller added that even if Arkansas voters don't immediately make the same distinctions about the farm bill that Cotton has -- that the measure supports more than farm subsidies -- Cotton should be able to easily explain why the measure was "bad policy."
"Overall, the issue has sort of flown under the radar, just by virtue of other issues taking the spotlight," Keller said. "I'm not sure that so many people are following in the rest of the country as they are in Washington. But it's a pretty simple case for someone to make, that the farm bill isn't the farm bill at all, that it's a massive entitlement program."
Keller said the club, which endorsed Cotton in his 2012 primary, has not made a decision on the 2014 contest but would take a "strong look" at endorsing the lawmaker if he issues a formal decision to run.
Other potential Republican candidates include Arkansas Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and Rep. Steve Womack, who is not expected to run if Cotton opts into the race.
"We have several individuals that would be top-tier candidates," said Arkansas GOP Chairman Doyle Webb. "Certainly if Tom Cotton enters the race, Congressman Cotton, he would be a tremendous candidate." Webb added that the same sentiment applied to Darr and other would-be candidates.
Webb likewise expressed doubt that Cotton's farm bill vote would come back to haunt him in a potential Senate bid.
"Congressman Cotton has done an excellent job for explaining his reasoning about his vote to his constituency. ... I don't believe that vote will hurt him at all," Webb said.
He said Pryor faces more significant challenges in the state defending his own record, including his vote in support of health care reform and what he called a mixed record on gun rights issues.
"The people in Arkansas cannot count on how he will vote on a particular issue. He's one thing one day and another thing another day. They want a consistent conservative," Webb said.
In addition to outside spending in the race, the Senate contest could prove to be an expensive proposition for the candidates.
Cotton was a prodigious fundraiser in his House bid, raising more than $2.2 million. His campaign reported $560,000 in the bank at the end of March.
The son of David Pryor (D), a former Arkansas governor and senator, Mark Pryor, 50, was first elected to the Senate in 2002, just two years after native son Bill Clinton left the White House. The state's congressional delegation has gone through a dramatic partisan realignment in recent years -- five of its six members were Democrats as recently as 2010 -- and Pryor must depend in part on the residual good will his family has built up through the decades to survive next year.
Pryor, who did not face a GOP challenge in his 2008 re-election bid, reported more than $3.4 million in his war chest at the end of March. Updated campaign finance figures will be available later this month.
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