Given much of a chance to know them personally, any Arkansas voter would almost certainly like both Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton well enough to vote for them, although perhaps not with a lot of excitement.
Not many ever get the chance for more than a casual and fleeting encounter with the people who would represent them; but now, thanks in part to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, they are apt to make their decisions based upon an even more capricious factor — a malignant image of both as cunning men bent on harming you and your values.
Campaign advertising, always tacky, has been getting meaner and more prolific every season, but nothing has come close to the Pryor-Cotton campaign or the campaigns in other battleground states like North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado and Alaska, which have never seen money in such multiples dumped into congressional campaigns.
The Arkansas Senate race will set all kinds of records but in ways that should not make anyone proud. Although the real campaign presumably doesn't begin until Labor Day, the money spent on media advertising for and against the two candidates already exceeds the record spent in the long 2010 campaign when Sen. Blanche Lincoln was buried in part by a blizzard of attack ads. The Phillips County farm girl was characterized as the puppet of the Muslim-loving socialist president.
Arkansas has already set one record that isn't likely to be matched. By mid-July, 21 separate groups had bought TV commercials attacking one or the other candidate, mainly Pryor. A handful of corporate-fed groups like Americans for Prosperity account for much of the money behind the attack ads across the country, including Arkansas, but the sheer number of outside groups investing in the Arkansas race sets it apart.
A representative of Kantar Media, the marketing research firm that monitors media spending on congressional elections, said 21 groups was an "unbelievable" number, far surpassing any other state, and that it was more surprising because Arkansas is a smaller, poorer state than most battleground states.
A rich Little Rock industrialist learned last month from the media that the ads in which he criticizes Pryor were actually paid for not by a small-business group, but by a lobbying arm of the insurance industry that wants to remove insurance taxes and consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare.
They have starkly different life narratives — the shy, aw-shucks Pryor, who never evidenced a political doctrine except to emulate his dad and push the government to help people, and the earnest and driven Cotton, whose sterling Ivy League schooling vested him with a burning zeal to turn the country into the libertarian utopia that Ayn Rand dreamed of, where government does not interfere with markets and the important work of industrialists or do favors for the unaccomplished and unmotivated of society.
It is not hard to support either man or oppose the other for his political record—Cotton for his nearly unwavering opposition to almost any government activity outside war or Pryor for voting for some Democratic programs but wavering on others. But it would be hard to hate either man for what he has tried to do with his life or his earnest motivations, including Cotton's boasting about his military record and Pryor's testaments to his deep religious impulses.
But hatred and fear are the goals of millions of dollars of TV and online ads by corporations and independent groups that were liberated by the Citizens United ruling, which said Congress could not place monetary limits on their right to destroy politicians who earn their disfavor.
Pryor in the ads is a lackey doing the bidding of the socialist black president instead of taking care of Arkansans, and Cotton is set on taking food from the mouths of the poor or aid from the thousands whose lives are wrecked by hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. There is real hatred in the letters to newspapers about the two men and behind the shaking fists of drivers who spot the wrong bumper sticker.
Although more outside groups are investing in the Arkansas Senate race, the state actually lags other battleground Senate states in the sheer volume and in some cases the viciousness of the independent campaigns. Overall TV spots at this point are 70 percent higher than in the last midterm election, in 2010. The number of TV spots from outside groups in Senate races is nearly six times the number in 2010. More ads ran this summer alone, through mid-July, than the whole two-year election in 2010. More than $33 million has been spent in the North Carolina Senate race.
The biggest PAC backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, Cotton's main supporters, had poured $44 million into congressional races by mid-July and they had barely begun. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pitched in big. Democratic congressional PACs have tried to keep pace with attack ads against Republicans but they've fallen short.
Party loyalists are unfazed, as always, by the attacks, but swing voters who ordinarily pay scant attention until the election are swayed. The best you can hope for is that most will be sickened by the display and search on their own for a ray of honesty.