Not His Father’s Arkansas

by Stuart Rothenberg October 20, 2014 · 10:27 AM EDT

I have been thinking for months about how politics has changed over the past decade, but those changes struck home in a very obvious way while I was reading a recent Washington Post article written by the very able Philip Rucker.

“Senator’s parents hit trail to preserve Ark. dynasty” was a front page piece that noted the efforts of former governor and former senator David Pryor and his wife, Barbara, to help their son, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, win re-election next month.

David Pryor won three races for Congress, two elections for governor and three Senate contests (losing only a Senate primary in 1972) between 1966 and 1990. He rarely had a tough race, and he was held in high regard by many Arkansans, even those who didn’t vote for him.

Rucker’s piece shows that many greeted the former governor warmly, but it also demonstrates how politics has evolved, and how that change has altered the way voters evaluate candidates for Congress.

“We’re campaigning for Mark because everybody likes mamas and daddies,” said the senator’s mother to one voter, according to Rucker.

Well, yes, people understand why parents support their children, and nobody is going to blame the vulnerable senator or his parents for stumping for him. But David and Barbara Pryor aren’t likely to get many votes for their son. Not this year, at least.

Partisanship and ideology are linked more closely now than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Back then, the two parties didn’t stand for opposing ideologies. They each included liberal, moderate and conservative members of Congress and attracted voters from across the ideological spectrum.

Democratic voters sent liberals like Hubert Humphrey, conservatives like Richard Russell and, somewhat later, moderates like David Pryor and Sam Nunn to the Senate. Republicans could dispatch conservatives Barry Goldwater and Karl Mundt to Capitol Hill at the same time that other Republicans were sending moderates and liberals like Chuck Percy and John Lindsay.

That’s no longer the case, and it’s a large part of the reason why a gentleman like David Pryor, who had an impressive political career, has such little influence on Arkansas voters these days.

The increased importance of ideology also has affected campaigning.

A couple of months ago, I received an email from an old friend who also happens to be one of the best reporters, and most astute political observers, on this or any planet. He noted repeatedly what a bad candidate Arkansas Republican Rep. Tom Cotton is. Others also have remarked that Pryor is great at pressing the flesh, while Cotton clearly lacks that skill.

Cotton, who is a narrow but clear favorite against Mark Pryor next month, is not a back-slapping, joke-telling good old boy. He is a serious, Harvard and Harvard Law School-educated Iraq veteran who served with the 101st Airborne.

But while there are times and places when a hearty handshake, a good old boy slap on the back and a couple of anecdotes and jokes still can be decisive, those skills don’t necessarily matter as much now as they once did. (Personality can still matter, of course, as Republican Senate challenger Cory Gardner of Colorado has demonstrated. But that’s better left for another column.)

I never bought into the criticism of Cotton, which spread throughout the political circles of D.C., because I figured his résumé — including his party and his opposition to President Barack Obama — far outweighed his stylistic weakness this cycle.

There was a time, of course, when Deep South Democratic senators like Fritz Hollings or Howell Heflin used their flair for storytelling and populism to win re-election. But they too would have electoral trouble if they had to defend votes for Obamacare.

Arkansas voters now see the candidates through the prisms of partisanship and ideology, and that is very bad news for a moderate Democrat in Arkansas and with Obama in the White House. Of course, Mark Pryor would be in much better shape politically this year if an unpopular George W. Bush were still in the Oval Office rather than an unpopular liberal Democrat.

You don’t think party matters that much? Why don’t you ask former Iowa GOP Rep. Jim Leach, former Maryland GOP Rep. Connie Morella or former Connecticut Republican Rep. Chris Shays? Or maybe you want to talk about it with former Idaho Democratic Rep. Walter Minnick or former Texas Democratic Reps. Charlie Stenholm or Chet Edwards.

All of those former members were liked back home, thoughtful and well-connected to their district’s voters, and all lost because they were members of the wrong political party and because their national party’s ideology trumped their individual political brands.

I am not arguing that a good family name has no value. Being a Kennedy in New England, a Bush in Texas or a Pryor in Arkansas undoubtedly is an asset, sometimes a huge one.

Florida’s 2nd District, where Democratic challenger Gwen Graham is running, is so evenly divided that her father’s reputation may help her fall over the finish line slightly ahead of incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Southerland II. (For now, that race is too close to call.)

But when a state or congressional district has switched from blue to red or red to blue, a pleasing personality, a firm handshake, a slap on the back, a good family name and even a record of good constituency service and political moderation usually isn’t enough to save an embattled incumbent in a bad year.

I could be wrong, of course, but at least that’s where I’ve been putting my money since December, when we moved this race to tilting toward Cotton.