CONWAY, Ark. (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton repeatedly tried to tie Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor to President Barack Obama, while Pryor accused his rival of being beholden to billionaire backers as the two squared off Monday for their first debate in Arkansas' heated Senate race.
The debate hosted by the Arkansas Educational Television Network also included the Libertarian and Green Party nominees as they sparred over who would best represent the state in Washington.
Cotton, a freshman lawmaker representing south Arkansas, invoked the president throughout the 90-minute debate and cited the president's recent remarks that his policies were on the ballot even if he wasn't in this midterm election. The president lost Arkansas in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and remains deeply unpopular in the state.
"Barack Obama has said his policies are on the ballot, every single one of them. I agree," Cotton said. "In Arkansas, those policies are called Mark Pryor."
Pryor, a two-term Democrat, accused Cotton of putting his ambition ahead of the state and voting more for conservative outside groups that have backed his bid.
"They are investing in Tom Cotton just like they would invest in a company. Why? They want to get a payback on their investment, and they will," Pryor said. "If he's elected to the Senate, they will get six years of paydays."
The tight race is one of the most expensive in the country and is key to Republicans' efforts to win a majority in the Senate next year. The two candidates and outside groups have spent nearly $34 million on the race, with the bulk of that going toward television ads that have blanketed Arkansas' airwaves. The two rivals are set to face off again Tuesday night in a one-on-one televised debate.
Monday's debate was the only one where the two agreed to include foreign policy, an area where Republicans believe Cotton has an edge as an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cotton said he doesn't believe troops should be ruled out as an option in battling the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
"No serious leader, certainly no commander in chief, would ever take any option off the table, including boots on the ground," Cotton said. "Because the Islamic State certainly isn't taking the option off the table."
Pryor, in turn, accused Cotton of being more interested in funding for nation building abroad than domestic needs such as schools and roads.
"I believe for us to be strong...abroad, we have to be strong at home," Pryor said.
Pryor defended his vote for the federal health care overhaul and said that before the law many Arkansans were one medical emergency away from bankruptcy.
"We needed to put patients back in charge of their health care," Pryor said. "I do support changing the law, I do, but I don't want to go back to those days."
Cotton called the law a "disaster" for the state and the country and said repealing it could allow for other reforms.
"When we start over on health care reform, we can take a program like Medicaid that has too much red tape and return it to the states and let states make those decisions," he said.
Pryor also criticized Cotton for voting against the farm bill, a measure the Republican said he opposed because it included funding for food stamps.
"He talks a good game, but the truth is that does not help Arkansas farmers," Pryor said.
Cotton defended his vote, saying the practice of combining food stamp funding with the farm bill a status quo that needs to change.
"The farm bill that ended up passing was a bad bill for Arkansas farmers and taxpayers," Cotton said.
Libertarian Nathan LaFrance and Green Party nominee Mark Swaney were mostly bystanders in a debate that focused primarily on the Cotton and Pryor matchup. LaFrance said he wanted to shrink federal government and called for term limits for Congress, while Swaney called for the abolition of the death penalty and a tax on carbon emissions.
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