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If Republicans are going to retake the U.S. Senate in 2014, their path runs through Arkansas. The state's two-term Democratic senator, Mark Pryor, is often called the Senate's most vulnerable incumbent.
And, while the election is still 15 months away, it's already gone negative.
Pryor's campaign went up with an ad accusing his opponent, freshman U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, of "hurting the people of Arkansas," even before the military veteran and conservative Republican officially announced he was running.
The next day, an outside conservative group, Club For Growth Action, announced a six-figure TV ad buy, running a spot saying Pryor has "a lot to answer for."
For Republicans, this race presents a dream scenario: The state has turned increasingly red since Bill Clinton was governor. Arkansas went for George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. And Pryor is the last remaining Democrat in the state's congressional delegation.
And then there's Cotton, who announced his candidacy earlier this month in his hometown of Dardanelle.
"No one will outwork me in this campaign," he said. "I will always defend our shared principles when they're attacked by anyone. I will do the right thing, even when it's the hard thing, and I will never, ever forget how I was raised or where I come from."
Cotton returned to Arkansas to run for Congress in 2011, after earning two degrees at Harvard, serving in the Army and working for a consulting firm in Virginia.
On a recent afternoon, Cotton dons a hard hat and reflective vest to get a tour of the Evergreen paper mill in Pine Bluff. It's a major employer in his district, and the source of a huge share of the nation's milk and juice cartons.
It's really noisy and hot — and the kind of thing members of Congress do when they're back home in their districts. After the tour, Cotton apologizes for having not made it out sooner — but it's a big district and he has only been in office since January.
Since his first days in office, Cotton has shown a willingness to buck his party's leadership, choosing a more conservative path on several votes — most recently, with the farm bill.
"Which I think shows that I'm an independent voice for the people of Arkansas, regardless of political party," he says.
Cotton helped vote down a version of the bill that — like farm bills going back decades — combined agriculture programs with food stamps. Cotton later supported a measure that would strip out the food stamp part.
"I voted for a real farm bill," he says. "Mark Pryor voted for a food stamp bill. I want farm programs that are designed to help Arkansas' farmers without holding them hostage to Barack Obama's food stamp program."
But Pryor says it's a "contrast that works for me."
Most major farm groups have called for a comprehensive bill that includes food stamps. And that's what Pryor supports.
"What the House has done on the farm bill makes the farm bill impassable," Pryor says, while riding in an ATV down a dusty path on a tour of a habitat restoration project made possible, in part, by the farm bill.
"You cannot pass that bill in the Senate," he adds. "I'm not sure you can get it through the House again, either."
Pryor, whose father served in the Senate before him, sees himself as someone who is willing to work across party lines to get things done. The implication: that Cotton may be too conservative to truly represent Arkansas. But Cotton says Pryor is too liberal.
Still, Pryor shrugs off the idea that he's the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate.
"Kind of makes us laugh here," Pryor says. "I had a very hard race in '02. People said I couldn't win, and I won. In '08, people said it was like dead man walking. ... It was only going to be one term. You know, they're saying the same things this time, and you just kind of get used to it after a while."
He says he's ready, and he's excited. Cotton says he is, too.
Which means for television viewers in Arkansas, it could be a long 15 months.
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