Senate Political Ads Turn Personal, Focus on Faith and Tornado Survivors

LITTLE ROCK, AR - The race for U.S. Senate sees its camps ratchet it up a notch with new campaign ads that trend more personal than the Natural State is used to seeing. 

"Are you a once a week Christian? Congressman Tom Cotton, saying Mark Pryor is," reads a news anchor opening the video clip to Senator Mark Pryor's newest ad. 

Pryor's ad on Tuesday, aimed at defending his faith. 

"Tom Cotton stood with us every step of the way," said Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock, as he walks through debris piles on screen. 

Cotton's ad declares his works in regards to support of storm survivors following the deadly April tornadoes. The two ads launched in the U.S. Senate campaign push the typical boundaries of "personal" for Arkansas politics.

"It's a bit edgy without going and saying it's nasty," said Art English, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at UALR. 

English, after viewing the ads, said it appeared to be an escalation in a decisive Senate race where congressional control hangs in the balance. 

"It's a tit for tat kind of thing, and it's a bit more personal than things get in Arkansas politics, but the stakes are very high," he said. "This could be the race that decides control of the Senate. The House will likely stay Republican. That could change the outcome of the last two years of President Barack Obama's second term."

"Heart" ad from Pryor campaign

Mark Pryor voices his ad, saying in part, "The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does."

The advertisement was in response to Tom Cotton who referred to Pryor as a once a week Christian when speaking about the Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. The corporation had contested the contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act, citing religious freedom. 

"I respect his faith, but I just wish Sen. Pryor would respect the faith of all Arkansans, which he didn't do when he cast the decisive vote for Obamacare," Cotton said last week to expand on his comment. 

"Recovery" ad from Cotton campaign

"Senator Pryor, start focusing on the real issues. Leave our community and our tragedy out of your campaign," Sheriff Andy Shock said on screen.

A county sheriff, an elected official, stumping for a candidate in a partisan race is something English hasn't seen before, saying it seems to veer away from longstanding political and legislative norms. 

Cotton's advertisement had Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock act as surrogate messenger, pointing to votes for several funding bills and support of the disaster declaration in Arkansas.

Shock provided a written statement but declined and on-camera interview about his choice to do the ad, saying, "Our tragedy should not be inaccurately leveraged for Senator Pryor's personal political gain. Some things should be off limits to politics. It's wrong to use these hardships like Senator Pryor and his supporters have in the last two months. " 

This ad, in response to critics highlighting the five times Cotton voted against federal funding aid bills, mostly for Hurricane Sandy. The criticism has linked those votes on disaster aid to Arkansans affected by the devastating April tornadoes in Faulkner County. 

The Cotton camp, citing three separate bills that Cotton voted to provide funding for FEMA, though staff at the Pryor camp criticized the citations, saying two out of those three never became law. Which Cotton's camp countered, saying the votes didn't result in law because of Democrats in the Senate. 

Personal vs. Policy

As far as the motivating factors for the more personal tack the campaigns are taking, the high stakes are likely to play a role, according to English.

"From a political campaign standpoint, the thought process could be, 'We want to dent these images to get that little bit of edge in a very close race' sometimes," English said. "That doesn't necessarily mean these types of ads are warranted." 

English said the ads are likely defending personal profiles rather than explaining policy, aiming to remind Arkansans Mark Pryor is a man of faith and that Tom Cotton is likeable. Perhaps the end goal is to remind voters that both men truly 

"You simply don't have time to do that  in these 30 seconds or one minute spots," English said. "The obstacle with issue advertising is who will watch it. Some campaigns have produced documentaries, but those can be expensive. And there are so many things for people to do." 

But English thinks voters would be better served going beyond 30 second spots to get to know the candidates. 

"The electorate cannot be superficial on a race that is so important," he said. "I would absolutely advise them to get to know these candidates and what they really think about the issues." 

Both the Pryor and Cotton campaigns provided statements in regard to the other candidate's advertisement.

Senator Tom Cotton: 
Senator Pryor is a man of faith and practices it with commendable openness, which I respect, but I wish he would respect Arkansans' right to practice our faith. Instead, Senator Pryor and President Obama still defend Obamacare even after the Supreme Court said it violated freedom of religion. Senator Pryor supports the taxpayer-funded abortion provisions of Obamacare and would force Christians to pay for abortions despite their deeply held religious beliefs. That's a real attack on faith. 

Pryor Campaign Spokesperson, Grant Herring: 
You can put lipstick on a pig, but Congressman Cotton can't run from his five reckless votes against disaster aid to help families recover from devastating storms. It's no wonder Cotton would try to mislead folks about his record of opposing relief for our neighbors in need, but it says a lot that Mayflower's mayor has high praise for Mark Pryor and every other elected official -- except for Tom Cotton.

Herring also took issue with Cotton's response to the advertisement saying, "As our senator, Mark has consistently voted to outlaw late-term abortions and stop federal funding for abortions. It's a shame Congressman Cotton has decided to spread falsehoods about Mark's record instead of apologizing for attacking his deep Christian faith." 

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