***UPDATE: See recap and real-time notes below.*** 

AETN today hosts a debate between candidates U.S. Senate: the incumbent, Democrat Mark Pryor and his challenger, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton — plus Libertarian Nathan LaFrance and the Green Party’s Mark Swaney


The debate kicks off at 2 this afternoon and you can watch a livestream here. The debate will be broadcast on AETN this evening.

Steve Barnes will host, with Doug Thompson of Northwest Arkansas News, Michael Hibblen of KUAR and Gwen Moritz of Arkansas Business on the panel. 


Over/under on how many times Cotton says “Obama”? (Update: the final tally was 74, according to various social media accounts.)

UPDATE: Here’s my recap, plus real-time liveblog notes after the jump. 


The partisan divide is so stark that it almost seems pointless to try to talk about who won the debate. Pryor supporters will tend to like his performance better and Cotton supporters will tend to like his performance better. Y’all can take my analysis with whatever grain of salt you’d like, but I think Pryor’s camp on net has to be quite happy. Keep in mind that Pryor generally is not great at off-the-cuff moments on television. Frankly, a lot of people (me included) underestimated him as a debater. He was clear, steady, and forceful. Pryor is not a world-beater when it comes to the finer points of his family business but he is very, very good at one skill in the politician’s toolbox: he is able to deliver sharp attacks while seeming like a nice guy. That’s no easy trick, and he drew some blood on Cotton with a gentle smile on his face. Cotton had some good prepared lines, but he still comes across as a bit canned. Part of the problem is that as a matter of campaign strategy, he says “Obama” so many times that it’s simply impossible for him to sound like a human being engaging in human speech. Maybe in Arkansas that strategy will work, but there are some risks of turning Cotton, clearly someone with the potential to be a talented debater, into a stiff robot. 

Guessing that a lot of the focus will be on the zingers: Pryor had a lot to say about billionaire donors. “He’s not listening to you, he’s listening to them. … Those applause [for voting against the Farm Bill] are still in his ears and those dollar signs are still in his eyes. …He has his billionaires but I have you. … This seat is not for sale.” Pryor said that Cotton’s rhetoric was “slick” and “clever” but that won’t help farmers. “Cotton wants to build the economy from billionaires down,” he said. “I want to build the economy from middle-class out.” Cotton didn’t directly rebut any of this stuff. 

Also strong from Pryor — and with no real rebuttal from Cotton — “He had no answer at all for people with pre-exisiting conditions,”  Pryor said on health care. He mentioned his own experience as a cancer survivor and said Cotton would “throw sick people to the wolves.”

Pryor also called out Cotton for saying nothing but Obama: “Clearly Congressman Cotton is running against one man. But I am running for 3 million Arkansans.” This was a pretty effective line only because Cotton sounds so awkward, and I thought it was a mistake for Cotton not to rebut it directly, but instead simply say “Obama” even more, as if proving he had no other tricks up his sleeve. 


I thought Pryor’s strongest moment was pointing out that when asked about accomplishments, he pointed to legislation while Cotton pointed to…nothing. “You’ve seen Congressman Cotton admit he hasn’t passed anything,” Pryor said, and slammed Cotton’s “my way or the highway…dead-end politics” which lead to “fiscal cliffs and shutdowns.” He said Cotton “doesn’t have the reputation, ability, or desire to walk across the aisle to get things done. ” 

Cotton’s zingers mostly focused on his combat experience. “I’ve dodged real bullets on the streets of Baghdad, so a a few metaphorical bullets on TV don’t really bother me,” he said. He also said — I didn’t catch the precise line — that while Pryor talked about leadership in Washington, Cotton had learned about real leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Pryor wasn’t “tough enough” and “talks one way in Arkansas but than he votes like a liberal in Washington D.C. That’s why a vote for Mark Pryor is a vote for Barack Obama.” That last line, in some form or another, was repeated by Cotton a lot. And it may well be enough to win in Arkansas, though Pryor clearly believes that swing voters are going to care more about bread and butter issues. Cotton is taking a small risk by taking such a dramatic one-note approach (see the more diversified platform of GOP gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, running ahead of Cotton in the polls). Cotton also talked a lot about expecting a child, presumably trying to soften up his image. 

Cotton made a few mistakes. His non-answer on legislative accomplishments opens him up to attacks on the very thing swing voters might be worried about — that his unbending ideology is too extreme. Meanwhile, when asked directly what would happen to the 200,000 Arkansans who would lose private option coverage if Obamacare was repealed (the questioner specifically asked candidates to address this issue) Cotton said nothing. Cotton usually bobs and weaves with word salad, but his silence here was even worse. I’d expect outside groups, if not Pryor himself, to hit Cotton on this issue in the home stretch. 

On foreign policy, Cotton said “boots on the ground in Syria” should be on the table. Pryor outlined a cautious approach to foreign policy intervention. This also led to another zinger that will probably play well in Arkansas: Pryor said that Cotton wanted to do nation building and invest in “schools, roads, and hospitals” in Afghanistan but not here at home in Arkansas. Given all the hubbub over Pryor dodging the inclusion of foreign policy in the other debate, I actually thought he more than held his own here. Cotton speaks with authority, but he’s a real outlier even in the GOP as an unreconstructed neoconservative, and I wonder whether that might scare some swing voters. Be curious to see how Cotton’s constant focus on the need to project toughness plays in various focus groups (“If you look hard and tough, your enemies will think you’re hard and tough,” Cotton said, adding that Obama didn’t look hard and tough enough.)

The message you heard over and over from Pryor was, I’m one of you. Y’all know me. There were references to old campaigns and one-on-one conversations and to voters who’ve visited his office. Pryor’s pitch was, you can trust me, I’m with you, and I’ll look out for the parochial interests of Arkansas. You can’t trust Cotton, Pryor said, because he’s bought and paid for. Cotton’s response: “a vote for Pryor is a vote for Obama.” 

I think Pryor did as well as he possibly could have hoped and that Cotton did a little less well than he might have hoped. That’s not to say that will matter in the end. Saying Obama over and over may well prove to be a winner and Cotton’s zingers on his military experience will be powerful to many voters. Let the spin commence. The two will face off again, this time in a one-on-one debate, in Fayetteville tomorrow. 

Real-time liveblog notes after the jump: 


Swaney says the Greens represent peace, social justice. and protecting the environment. Slams Pryor for support of Iraq War. Advocates living wage and a carbon tax. Pryor presumably pleased that Swaney says Pryor is insufficiently liberal. 

Pryor focuses on localizing the race, mentioning saving jobs in Texarkana and funding research at Arkansas State. He mentions the audio tape of Cotton with billionaire donors in California, who applauded when Cotton’s vote against the Farm Bill was mentioned.  “He’s not listening to you, he’s listening to them,” Pryor says. “Those applause are still in his ears and those dollar signs in his eyes.” Says, “He has his billionaires but i have you.” Pryor good at slipping the knife in with a nice-guy tone. 

LaFrance gives the libertarian pitch. Slash government, he says. 

Cotton gives stump speech, mentions growing up on farm and serving in infantry. Washington isn’t working, Obamacare is a disaster, debt is scary. Mentions that he’s expecting a child. Nice touch. “We want to make sure that our baby has the same future that we all had,” he says. Cotton says “Obama” or “Obamacare” seven times in his opening statement. 

Pryor keeps hitting on the billionaires in California, says Cotton will slash Medicare and Social Security and vote against the Farm Bill in order to give tax cuts for his billionaire buddies. Says Cotton’s backers see their involvement in the race as an “investment.” “This seat is not for sale,” Pryor says. Obviously outside groups are launching attack ads against Cotton too, but Pryor is very good at playing the nice guy lamenting the slime.  That story about Cotton meeting with the Koch group in California must have polled well. 

Cotton says people don’t want to hear politicians whine about negative ads (probably true, though seems like voters themselves are complaining about them). Good ready-made zinger: “I’ve dodged real bullets on the streets of Baghdad, so a a few metaphorical bullets on TV don’t really bother me.” Says “Obama-Pryor economy” over and over. 

Pryor says the negative ads are “not good for the system.” He says lack of transparency and unlimited money is “corrosive.” 

Next question, from Gwen Moritz, also about ads! Yawn. 

Cotton again says Arkansans don’t want to hear politicians whine about negative ads. Mortiz said that Cotton isn’t answering her question about negative ads and is just regurgitating talking points. True enough, but Barnes said there’s no provision for follow-up questions, so Cotton gets to go on. He follows with very fast, almost unintelligible slew of complaints about Obama, Obamacare, and the “Obama economy.” 

Pryor thanks Moritz for asking about the ads and says he is responsible for his ads. You know…I’m kind of with Cotton here. This meta-conversation about campaign tactics is kind of a waste of time in a short policy debate.

Pryor says Cotton’s “rhetoric is very clever,” which is good for advancing his career, but Arkansas voters “are smarter than that.” Pryor says people are tired of being misled and have started hitting the mute button during all the political ads. 

On foreign policy, Cotton says “Barack Obama’s foreign policy of weakness and hesitation” has made America less safe. Mentions his own service, says that Obama’s failures are leading to increased ISIS threat. Says boots on the ground in Syria should be on the table. Cotton is really an outlier even in the Republican party as a diehard neoconservative. How will that play in Arkansas? 

Pryor thanks Cotton for his service.”My number one priority as your senator is to keep America safe from terrorism,” he says. Supports air strikes against ISIS. He says his criteria for foreign-policyintervention: 1) Clear national security threat, 2) clear mission with definable and attainable goals, 3) must be international coalition with regional partners bearing the burden alongside Americans. Says Cotton is for nation-building and open-ended commitment in Iraq. Says Cotton wants to rebuild schools, roads and hospitals in Afghanistan but not at home in Arkansas. 

Cotton again plays up his own combat experience. “If you look hard and tough, your enemies will think you’re hard and tough,” he says. Says Obama doesn’t look hard and tough enough and is making Americans look weak. 

“The Farm Bill is a very important piece of legislation for Arkansas,” Pryor says. Says it might be the most important congressional bill for Arkansas. Clear difference between him and Cotton, he says.  Slams the “hijacking the Farm Bill” ad. Says that Cotton’s rhetoric is slick but that won’t help farmers. 

LaFrance says he would get rid of both farm subsidies and food stamps — which happens to be the position of Cotton’s financial backers, although he won’t say so. 

Cotton says we “need a real Farm Bill…Pryor and Barack Obama insist on doing things the old way.” Adds that he grew up on a farm. Complains about Massachusetts. 

I can’t keep track of the number of times Cotton has said “Obama.” More than a hundred, I think. 

Swaney on those who want to slash food stamps: “These are people who don’t care if babies starve. They like their ideology more than human beings.” 

Moritz asks about Obamacare, and asks people to reply with specific response regarding what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of Arkansans currently covered by the private option. Pryor notes popular component parts of Obamacare, such as banning discrimination based on pre-exisiting conditions. Says he wants to work on fixing law and making it better but doesn’t want to go back to the problems of the pre-Obamacare world. Says that he wants to keep the private option, which is covering 200,000 Arkansans. Credits Republicans for working to pass bipartisan policy. 

“Obamacare has been a disaster for Arkansas,” Cotton says. Since the question is about Obamacare, the OPM is in double digits. Says repealing Obamacare + boilerplate conservative talking points = better. Despite Mortiz SPECIFICALLY ASKING CANDIDATES TO ADDRESS WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THE PRIVATE OPTION IF OBAMACARE IS REPEALED, Cotton says he would repeal Obamacare but says NOTHING about the private option. (He does mention again that he’s expecting a baby.)

Pryor says Cotton is wrong to say he doesn’t have fixes for Obamacare: he mentions repealing IPAB, a technical fix for pastors and ministers on the exchange, and repealing the medical tax device. “He had no answer at all for people with pre-exisiting conditions,” he says. Mentions his own experience as a cancer survivor. Says Cotton would “throw sick people to the wolves.” Doesn’t mention that COTTON HAD NOTHING TO SAY ABOUT THE PRIVATE OPTION. But perhaps we’ll see an ad on that front. 

Heh, Thompson asks what the candidates to explain what they will do over their six years — without mentioning Obama.  

Cotton refuses, says Obama can do a lot of damage in two years. 

“I’m sure as you all notice,” whatever you ask, “Congressman Cotton talks about Obama. … Clearly Congressman Cotton is running against one man. But I am running for 3 million Arkansans.” Says, “I’m on your side.” Notes Keystone pipeline, EPA regulations, and gun control as examples of disagreeing with Obama. “You know me,” he says, saying that Arkansans know he doesn’t agree with Obama on everything. Says he’s been “disappointed” with Obama. Says he’s consistently ranked one of the most independent senators. 

Cotton says his biggest accomplishment in Congress was stopping bad laws from passing. Pryor says it was passing Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act. Notes 70 bipartisan pieces of legislation he has passed. Notes that he brings home the bacon to Arkansas. “You’ve seen Congressman Cotton admit he hasn’t passed anything,” Pryor says. With Cotton, it’s “my way or the highway.” Cotton’s Hell No Caucus style is “dead-end politics” which “leads to thing like fiscal cliffs and shutdowns.” Tells Cotton he “doesn’t have reputation, ability, or desire to walk across the aisle to get things done. ” 

“Sen. Pryor likes to talk about leadership in Washington,” Cotton says. But Cotton says that he learned leadership as a solider in Iraq and Afghanistan and that’s more valuable than Pryor’s brand of leadership. Says Pryor isn’t tough enough. Says he “talks one way in Arkansas but than he votes like a liberal in Washington D.C. That’s why a vote for Mark Pryor is a vote for Barack Obama.” 

*I just got booted offline, so missed a few minutes. According to social media I missed this line: “Cotton wants to build the economy from billionaires down. I want to build the economy from middle-class out.” And Cotton said no new taxes and “we have deficits because we have a spending problem.” Deficits are going down rapidly, but don’t expect Pryor to make this point. 

“Congressman Cotton told a whopper,” Pryor says. Says he voted against every budget Obama has offered. voted to cut taxes by trillions of dollars during his time in the senate. Brings up the billionaires paying for his campaign again. Says he has a plaque on his desk in his office (“many of you have been there,” he says) — “Arkansas comes first.” Says, “let’s keep this seat for the people of Arkansas.” 

Cotton: grew up on a farm, expecting a child. Says, “Obama’s policies are on the ballot…a vote for Mark Pryor is a vote for Obama’s failed policies.” At this point in the debate, Cotton needs to diversify, in my view. After Pryor calling him out about the perseveration, Cotton sounds like he has a verbal tic. It is simply impossible to sound like a human talking if you say the same word in every sentence. He’s even repeating entire sentences — exactly the same — multiple times in this closing statement.