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Steve Barnes | Campaigning is a family affair

It wasn’t stop-the-presses news, not “Breaking News” news on a television screen, which would have indicted it wasn’t news at all or had actually “broken” hours earlier. Indeed it was so unsurprising as to be almost un-news. Still, it was news. And it was broken, as it were, not by an enterprising reporter but by the candidate himself, in a press release on July 7. “Senator David Pryor and First Lady Barbara Pryor to Hit the Campaign Trail in July” was the headline.

Sure enough they did — only one day later. And of course the candidate was not David, nor Barbara, but son Mark, struggling to maintain, at a minimum, the single-digit lead he is believed to have over U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas’s Fourth District, who hopes to deprive Pryor of a third term in the U.S. Senate. The Pryors, mom and dad, hit Hot Springs first and hit it hard, and were rewarded with extensive coverage in the local daily. Mission accomplished, that day at least.

The Pryors, in the (accurate) language of their son’s press release, are “masters of Arkansas’ retail political culture.”

“I always remember how far a firm handshake and a warm smile can go,” added Barbara Pryor, or someone, in a not so subtle dig at the comparatively wooden Cotton.

There is old-style retail — firm handshakes and warm smiles. Then there is 21st Century wholesale — social media; and, holdovers from the 20th, television and cable advertising, more expensive (at retail) than cyber-campaigning yet still the primary driver of public opinion in Arkansas. “Free media,” the print and electronic news coverage afforded candidates and their more prominent surrogates — such as the Pryor parents – is, well, free: provided the coverage is favorable. Likely most of it will be as regards the Pryors, who will celebrate their son’s message of moderation, decry deadlock and the politics of polarization but utter Cotton’s name only if unavoidable, and wax sentimental while calling in every chit they have. It is hardly astonishing that their tour began in Cotton’s Fourth Congressional District, which, under a different configuration, the elder Pryor represented for seven years.

Nothing underscores the continuing volatility of the race and the razor-thin margin separating Pryor and his opponent than the presence of the Democratic nominee’s storied parents on the stump. Up close, in person, personal. The contrast between Mark Pryor’s previous campaigns and this year’s effort could hardly be more striking. A famous family name obviously can open the door but it can’t alone close the deal, witness the 58-42 clobbering Mark Pryor took 20 years ago in a Democratic primary against Winston Bryant for attorney general. It was the former’s first and only loss.

In all their son’s campaigns heretofore the Pryors maintained a fairly low public profile even as they burned the phone lines in Mark’s behalf. It was the smart thing to do, helping minimize any criticism of dynasty-building. Mark Pryor would win it or lose it on his own. That was the public perception intended, and presumably his preference; and besides, circumstances allowed him to keep his bloodline backstage. Literally. During the debate that helped Pryor unseat Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson in 2002 Pryor’s father sat outside the auditorium, a hundred feet from the door, anxiously asking spectators at the forum’s conclusion how the son had performed. When Mark Pryor claimed his victory on election night short weeks later, becoming the only Democrat to best a Republican incumbent senator that year, his father and mother remained behind the curtain, hidden from the cameras. After all, it was the son’s night.

It began to look easy. Six years later, Pryor waltzed to a second Senate term with no opposition save the Green Party nominee, the able and articulate but unfunded and unelectable Rebekah Kennedy. It was reminiscent of David Pryor’s 1990, when no one brought a challenge. But this was 2008, the year of Barack Obama. So things changed, quickly.

All’s fair (or so it seems) in our ear’s politics and deploying the parents is hardly unfair. Nor is there room for Cotton to complain; his mother and father were featured prominently in some of his first television spots of the campaign. By all accounts the Cottons are remarkably fine citizens, though for the moment their son may wish their last name was Cruz.

Thicker than water? We’ll see.

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