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The personal is political 

click to enlarge Avis Cotton image
  • Avis Cotton starred in an ad for her son, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton

After months of nearly wholly negative ads in the ever-lengthening race for the U.S. Senate in Arkansas, most created by outside third party groups, both the Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton campaigns took back control of their messages in the last two weeks with personal, positive ads. The style and themes of the ads tell us much about the relative strengths of their candidacies just under a year away from the election which will determine which of the two has his congressional career continue and which sees his end.

Congressman Cotton went up first with an ad featuring his mother recounting holidays spent worrying about her husband in Vietnam. With just the right amount of emotion in her voice, Avis Cotton then effectively shifts to how tough her Christmases were when her son was in Afghanistan. A series of photos of Cotton in uniform then floats across the screen as she notes that after he volunteered in lieu of a promising legal career, Cotton "insisted on the infantry, just like his Dad." The goal, of course, is to highlight Cotton's commitment to service and the need for those "who do the hard things" to serve in Washington. Cotton's military service was a centerpiece of his 2012 campaign in which introduced himself to his district and Cotton's campaign believes it the answer once again as he is now presented to a statewide audience.

However, as effective as his mother is as a surrogate, it is striking that Cotton himself is personally absent (excepting photos) from this ad meant to humanize him. While Cotton's resume is impressive, his campaign badly needs to add dimensions to him as a component of his introduction to the state. Having never seen Cotton work a crowd of Arkansans, I made it to his breakfastime appearance at the Political Animals Club just before Thanksgiving. His speech was a machinelike and well-delivered attack on Obamacare, exhibiting very little in the way of humor, passion or personality. In her cover article on Cotton this week, a writer for the National Journal oddly romanticized this aspect of the Cotton presence, noting the Congressman's "stilted epistolary style, even with some of his closest friends." Personal mysteriousness is not a recipe for success in this state's electoral arena. Arkansas politics has unquestionably turned a page from the days when a candidates' electoral fate was determined solely by an ability to relate to Arkansans at county square "speakings" and in country diners, but Cotton has to find a way to connect with voters himself rather than employing emissaries.

In contrast, if Pryor is to pull out what is increasingly seen as a race where he is the underdog, it will be because of a reaffirmed ability to relate to rank-and-file Arkansans. It's crucial to note that a key to Pryor's 2002 victory in a tough electoral environment for his party was how well — and how personally — he used the media. Reserved but eminently likable, Pryor, with mannerisms of his beloved father, performed amazingly well when talking directly to the television camera, the high-tech version of the state's traditional retail politics. Looking older than the man elected in 2002, that Pryor was back this week with a large buy on stations across the state in an ad lit in a manner meant to reassert this warmth.

Some of the most memorable Pryor ads from 2002 focused on the same theme found here — how his Christian faith guides his service: "[The Bible] is my compass. My North Star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas." Pryor's public embrace of his religious faith has made home-state secular progressives cool to the senior senator across his electoral career. As they grimaced again, national progressives went a tad apoplectic about the Pryor spot. In a column titled "The Bible as Bludgeon," New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted the ad's "silliness" and the way it exhibited a more troubling entanglement of Christianity in electoral politics.

No matter the accurateness of the broader critique, what these observers miss is Pryor's authenticity in delivering a message that resonates with Arkansans across most social and political lines. As the ad closes, Pryor strongly avers, "This is who I am and what I believe." He's also a cagey politician, for the more outside political commentators attack his on his public expression of religion (be they columnists for the Times or operatives from the National Republican Senatorial Committee), the more that Pryor's provincial "he's one of us" theme is reaffirmed.

National publications went to a new level of intensity in their coverage of the Pryor-Cotton race this week. In addition to the National Journal's cover story on Cotton, front page articles ran in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Just as it's clear that the Arkansas contest may determine control of the Senate, it is also clear that Pryor's advantage as a messenger will be one thing that keeps him in the game.

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