Provincialism — that sense that Arkansans have limited use for the world beyond Arkansas’s borders — has been a defining characteristic of the state’s politics and society for its entire existence. Territorial Gov. John Pope characterized it as “a terrified truculence toward new ideas from outside.” More recently, provincialism has shaped the political careers of a father and son named Pryor who have achieved statewide success. As Mark Pryor’s public statements and advertising blitz in recent days have shown, he intends to ride the sentiment through one more election in 2014.
In the most devastating event of his political career, David Pryor lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 1972 primarily as a result of veteran U.S. Sen. John McClellan hammering Pryor on campaign contributions from outside labor unions. Just two nights before the runoff vote that would propel McClellan to an upset win, the veteran senator ridiculed Pryor’s contention that Arkansans had dipped into their cookie jars to send him small donations. McClellan closed the debate: “This is no cookie jar nickels and dimes. … Big, out-of-state contributions to Pryor. They total $79,877.16. … Yes, that’s a cookie jar — quite a cookie jar indeed.”
With this lesson learned about the potency of provincialism in Arkansas campaigns, David Pryor turned the tables on Congressman Jim Guy Tucker in a U.S. Senate runoff election six years later. Pryor hammered Congressman Jim Guy Tucker for his lack of allegiance to “those values we treasure in Arkansas.” “Almost three-quarters of the time,” Pryor’s closing ads trumpeted, “Jim Guy Tucker disagreed with his fellow Southerners and voted with Northern liberals in Congress …” Pryor won the primary handily to capture McClellan’s seat.
As he followed his father to the Senate in 2002, Mark Pryor employed the same tactics. The first Pryor ad in that race against Sen. Tim Hutchinson closed with him raising the plaque from his father’s Senate office desk, saying, “Arkansas Comes First.” It was to be the mantra for the Pryor campaign. As the fall campaign began, the state Democratic Party began a series of ads that was the second punch in Pryor’s provincialist strategy. All carried the tagline “Washington Has Changed Tim Hutchinson.” A focus on Hutchinson’s “change” meant making the case that a “callous” Hutchinson, who had voted against federal programs popular in the state, was “not one of us.” Of course, the attacks on Hutchinson’s “change” also served as a double entendre with an eye to the Republican’s divorce. These skillfully choreographed messages allowed Mark Pryor to stay positive and parochial while his allies echoed the parochial and poked subtly at the personal.
In a race destined to be the toughest fight of Pryor’s Senate career, the younger Pryor has returned to familiar turf in responding to attack ads from both the right and left in recent days. Using New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the primary funder of a large-scale advertising buy focused on Pryor’s vote against expanded background checks for gun buyers) as a foil, Pryor opened his campaign with an attack on the outsider’s attempts to influence Arkansas politics: “I approve this ad because no one from New York or Washington tells me what to do,” he concludes. “I listen to Arkansas.” The attacks from the right have centered on Pryor’s votes for the passage of Obamacare. Here, too, Pryor has played the Arkansas card by attaching himself to the unique “private option” plan for expanding health access.
While Pryor is once again playing the politics of provincialism that is in his political DNA and has served him, his father and others so well over the years, the world has changed from the days when folks actually believed that Arkansas was the only state that could survive if a fence were built around it to prevent anything from coming in or going out. While more provincial than most places, Arkansans now recognize their innerconnectedness with the rest of the country and world and the value of those connections. Moreover, from Bill Clinton’s presidency to the reshaping of Arkansas politics by the Obama presidency, the state’s politics have proved newly permeable to outside forces. While Arkansas may still “come first,” we now regularly see elections where national tides overwhelm such parochial interests. It may be the most promising script available to Pryor, but it’s less potent than at any point in the state’s history.
Max Brantley is on vacation.