PICKENS, Ark. (AP) — In a Senate race as pivotal as any in the country, Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is running against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, who is running against President Barack Obama.
All else is secondary, including a clash over agriculture and issues, a caustic tidal wave of television ads washing over voters and an intensive effort by Democrats to register thousands of new voters in a state that has turned several shades redder since Obama took office.
Cotton is "the only member of the Arkansas delegation, House or Senate, Republican or Democrat, to vote to raise the age for Medicare to 70," Pryor said recently as he issued a campaign booklet that detailed spending cuts he said his opponent has supported in Congress. He also frequently points out that his challenger was the only lawmaker from Arkansas to oppose the most recent farm bill.
Cotton's reply? The 37-year-old first-term House member scarcely seems to utter a sentence that doesn't include the president's name.
"I vote a hundred percent of the time with Arkansas' best interests. He votes 93 percent of the time with Barack Obama," he said, adding: "I don't know many Arkansans who think that Barack Obama is right 93 percent of the time."
Cotton is one of the many Republicans to inject Obama forcefully into his campaign in a year the GOP is battling for control of the Senate. Yet the Democrats' multimillion-dollar program to turn out new, midterm election voters in key states will be tested in Arkansas as much as anywhere, given recent polls suggesting an exceedingly close race.
Obama's unpopularity in Arkansas is not in dispute, despite a Democratic tradition so thick that Roosevelt Road carries traffic up to the perimeter of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in the capital city. Six years ago, Pryor had no Republican opposition for re-election. Democrats held the state's other Senate seat and three of four House seats.
Enter the nation's first black president, who drew less than 40 percent of the vote in the state in winning campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and whose ratings now are in the low- to mid-30s. Pryor, now the only Democrat left in the state's congressional delegation, concedes his try for a new term is probably made tougher by Obama's shadow.
Georgia Bowen, making calls at the Democratic phone bank in Little Rock, is an enthusiastic supporter of the health care law that Republicans first tagged — scathingly — with Obama's name.
"When they're calling it 'Obamacare' they're trying to insert race into something where race doesn't belong," said the former teacher.
Ninety miles away, William Moore, who served in the Pacific in the Air Force during the Vietnam era, cites two reasons he supports Cotton.
"He's a veteran," he says, referring to the congressman's tour in Afghanistan in an Army unit. And, "I think he wants to do away with Obamacare. I'm in favor of that."
Cotton emphasizes his roots on an Arkansas farm in a recent television commercial, which appears designed to blunt Pryor's attacks on his vote against the farm bill. And he travels in a campaign bus with a military-camouflage design on its exterior. He enlisted in 2005, a few years after graduating from Harvard Law School.
In the House, he voted for budgets advanced by the Republican Study Committee, conservatives who want to eliminate federal deficits faster than other Republicans, and are willing to back spending cuts that cause others to flinch.
That gives rise to Pryor's charge that Cotton supports increasing the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare. It's unclear what sort of credence voters give to the charge.
"You hear that all the time," says James Wilkerson, 64, tending the cash register at the Pickens Store and Restaurant, where Cotton mingled with a few dozen lunchtime patrons. "I haven't seen any evidence of that."
If voters are just getting to know Cotton, Pryor needs no introduction.
The 51-year-old lawmaker has a family political bond with the voters reaching back decades. It was first forged by his father, former two-term governor and three-term Sen. David Pryor, who retired in 1996 and now campaigns with his wife, Barbara, for their son.
She delivers a pep talk to the phone bank volunteers calling in search of new voters and sums up Democratic fears succinctly. "Bad leaders are elected by good people who fail to vote," she says.
Cotton has a different view, and Obama — not surprisingly — figures into it.
"Only in the last four or five years have the conservative values of Arkansas begun to move toward the Republican Party," he said in an interview. "People like my parents, who were lifelong Democrats, realize that the Obama Democrats really don't represent those conservative views and values."