RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Good morning. If Republicans are going to retake the U.S. Senate in 2014, the road runs through Arkansas. That state's two-term Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is often called the Senate's most vulnerable incumbent. His opponent, Tom Cotton, is a military veteran and conservative Republican, just recently elected to Congress. NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith traveled to Arkansas to catch up with the candidates.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Yes, the election is 15 months away. But, get this, it's already gone negative.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tom Cotton should be running, not for higher office, but running from his own record of hurting the people of Arkansas.
KEITH: Senator Pryor's campaign went up with this ad, before Cotton even officially announced he was running. The next day, an outside conservative group called Club For Growth Action announced a six figure TV ad buy with this.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you could ask Mark Pryor one question, what would it be? Would you ask why he continues to support Obamacare?
KEITH: For Republicans, this race presents a dream scenario. The state has turned increasingly red since Bill Clinton was governor. Arkansas went for George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney; and Mark Pryor is the last remaining Democrat in the state's congressional delegation. And then there's Congressman Tom Cotton, who announced his candidacy earlier this month in his hometown of Dardanelle.
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REPRESENTATIVE TOM COTTON: No one will outwork me in this campaign. I will always defend our shared principles when they're attacked by anyone. I will do the right thing, even when it's the hard thing; and I will never ever forget how I was raised or where I come from.
KEITH: Cotton returned to Arkansas to run for congress in 2011, after earning two degrees at Harvard, serving in the Army and working for a consulting firm in Virginia. On a recent afternoon, Cotton donned a hard hat and reflective vest to get a tour of the Evergreen paper mill in Pine Bluff. It's a major employer in his district, and the source of a huge share of the nation's milk and juice cartons.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's like back in school you'd laminate both sides of a piece of paper. That's what we're doing but on a bigger scale, and much more technical than that for sure.
KEITH: It's really noisy and hot, and the kind of thing members of Congress do when they're back home in their districts. After the tour, Cotton apologizes for having not made it out sooner - but it's a big district and he has only been in office since January. Since his first days in office, Cotton has shown a willingness to buck his party's leadership on several votes choosing a more conservative path, most recently with the farm bill.
COTTON: Which I think shows that I'm an independent voice for t he people of Arkansas, regardless of political party.
KEITH: He helped vote down a version of the bill that, like farm bills going back decades, combined agriculture programs with food stamps. Cotton later supported a measure that stripped out the food stamp part.
COTTON: I voted for a real farm bill. Mark Pryor voted for a food stamp bill. I want farm programs that are designed to help Arkansas' farmers without holding them hostage to Barack Obama's food stamp program.
REPRESENTATIVE MARK PRYOR: It's a contrast that works for me.
KEITH: That's Senator Mark Pryor riding in an ATV down a dusty path on a tour of a habitat restoration project made possible, in part, by the farm bill. Most major farm groups have called for a comprehensive bill that includes food stamps. And that's what Pryor supports.
PRYOR: What the House has done on the Farm Bill makes the farm bill impassable. You cannot pass that bill in the Senate. I'm not sure you can get it through the House again either.
KEITH: Pryor's father served in the Senate before him. He sees himself as someone who is willing to work across party lines to get things done. The implication - that Cotton may be too conservative to truly represent Arkansas. Cotton, of course, would say Pryor is too liberal. As the Senator rode to his next event, he shrugged off the idea that he's the most vulnerable Democrat in the senate.
PRYOR: It kind of makes us laugh here because, you know, I had a very hard race in '02. People said I couldn't win and I won. In '08 people said it was like dead man walking. You know, it was only going to be one term. You know, they're saying the same thing this time. And you just kind of get used to it after a while.
KEITH: He says he's ready, and he's excited. Cotton says he is too. Which means for television viewers in Arkansas, it could be a long 15 months. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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