The debates are over but the interest in Arkansas’ U.S. Senate and Governors races remain, according to several national political analysts.
Talk Business and Politics interviewed Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball; Michael Barone, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor for the Rothenberg Political Report and Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for Senate and Governor’s races for the Cook Political Report, to get their thoughts on the proverbial playing field two weeks before the election.
All four said Arkansas could play a pivotal role in deciding who controls the Senate in January. A pair of polls released this week by Talk Business and Politics and Hendrix College showed Republicans with leads in both the Governor and Senate races.
Monday’s poll showed Rep. Tom Cotton with a 49-40.5% lead over Sen. Mark Pryor, while a poll released Tuesday showed Asa Hutchinson with a 49-41% lead over Mike Ross.
The poll showed Cotton with leads in three of the four congressional districts as well as among key demographics.
Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College, who helped coordinate the poll, said the race is definitely leaning toward Cotton.
“Moving into early voting, our survey says, ‘Advantage Cotton.’ For Pryor to close the gap, a monstrous and effectively targeted turnout operation and the entrance of large numbers of new registrants into the fold are both essential,” Barth said.
Kondik, with Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said his group’s polling average has shown Cotton with a three-point lead over Pryor, while Hutchinson has opened up a six-point aggregate lead over Ross.
Their website has both listed as leaning Republican, meaning the Republican is favored to win the election but it remains to be watched.
Kondik said the historical leanings of the state favoring the Democrats have changed in recent years, with Republicans benefiting from an anti-Obama mood from the public.
As for the Senate race, Kondik said Arkansas and nearby Louisiana are two states that Republicans are banking on in order to win the Senate majority. However, he said the Louisiana race may end up in a December 6 runoff to determine the winner. He said the incumbents – Democrats Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu – are probably the “last of the breed” of southern Democrats that can win in so-called red states.
The candidates are “well known politically and their families have good reputations”, Kondik, who is based at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said.
Kondik said Republicans have attempted to make the Senate race a national referendum of sorts, while Democrats have worked to localize the race by talking about local issues.
On the governor’s race, Kondik said Ross does not have the statewide ID compared to Hutchinson.
The incumbent, Democrat Mike Beebe, is overwhelming popular in the state. However, Kondik said he was not sure, especially in an open race, if that would translate to in effect, a Beebe third-term for Ross.
Kondik did say having Pryor and Ross at the top of the Democratic ticket could benefit former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays, who is running for a U.S. House seat in the 2nd District against Republican French Hill.
Barone, with the Almanac of American Politics, said Cotton is the favorite at this point, but stopped short of saying Cotton would win the race. However, Arkansas voters have a knack of supporting young upstarts, Barone said.
“My take is this. Here is a young Senate candidate with strong academic credentials. Some Democrats in Arkansas have attacked him for his lack of experience. Here is a story. In 1942, a young man ran for a congressional seat in Arkansas. Two years later, he was elected to the Senate. He served 30 years in the Senate and was the chairman of the Foreign Relations committee longer than any other senator. His name was J. William Fulbright, so it can happen,” Barone said.
Barone said most polls show Pryor, who has not run a major race in the state since 2002, is in “tough territory” with a 41 or 42 percent approval rating.
A Sept. 20 poll from Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based polling firm, showed Cotton with a 40 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval rating.
Barone said the Pryor name, along with former Senator Dale Bumpers and former President Bill Clinton, have helped Democrats in the past with reaching voters and stemmed off any major Republican gains in the state until now. However, the Democratic base appears to be crumbling while Republicans appear to be gaining, Barone said. The race also has national implications, Barone said.
“There is a lot of national interest. For the Democrats, it is key to holding onto the Senate majority. For the Republicans, some see Cotton as a foreign policy leader,” Barone said.
Gonzales, with Rothenberg, agreed with Kondik on the Senate race.
“It is a national focal point. It is a good example of a Democrat incumbent in a Red state. We will find out if the family brand trumps the President’s low approval numbers in Arkansas,” Gonzales said.
Last Monday, the Rothenberg Political Report changed its rating of the Senate race from a tossup to Lean Republican.
Gonzales said the race is “squarely within the top 10 Senate races in the country.”
“It is not a ‘must win’ for Republicans. But I cannot see it (the majority going to the Republicans) without Arkansas,” Gonzales said.
As for the governor’s race, Gonzales said it has not received a lot of attention on a national level. However, Gonzales said a good measure for Democrats will be whether or not Gov. Beebe’s high approval ratings translate to support for Ross.
Gonzales did say Democrats in the nation’s capital are bullish about their chances of winning the 2nd District race.
Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College polling showed Democrat Pat Hays with a four-point lead over Republican French Hill.
A strong showing in the district, especially the Little Rock area, may help Democrats with the upper-tier races, Gonzales said.
Either way, Gonzales said the Senate race gives residents an opportunity to decide the nation’s future.
“It is the state’s time to shine,” Gonzales said.
Jennifer Duffy, with the Cook Political Report, said the race between Cotton and Pryor is one of the most hotly contested races in the country.
Republicans need six seats to pick up a Senate majority and are poised to pick up three Democratic seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, Duffy said.
Of the remaining number, three of the six – Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana –are in states that Mitt Romney won rather handily in the 2012 presidential race, Duffy said.
“I would say that Arkansas is their best shot, followed by Louisiana and Alaska,” Duffy said. “But you have to remember that Republicans are also vulnerable in Kansas and Georgia. So you have to remember that for every one they (Republicans) lose, they have to pick up one elsewhere.”
Both national parties are also watching the Senate race, with money being spent heavily in the weeks leading up to Nov. 4, Duffy said. Both also had their “rapid response” teams at work during recent debates at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Duffy said.
“Right now (on the Senate race), I would say the Republicans are cautiously optimistic. I would say the Democrats are also cautiously optimistic,” Duffy said.
As for the governor’s race, Duffy said while polls have been unreliable around the country, the polling in Arkansas’ race has been “remarkably consistent.”
Duffy said Ross provides a good opportunity for Democrats but may also face voters’ apathy.
“Ross is a great candidate. But there has been a Democratic governor for eight years and voters are probably ready for a change,” Duffy said.
Arkansas is also the only governor’s race in the country in which Democrats are defending that Romney won in 2012. “It is a situation where every vote counts,” Duffy said.