JONESBORO, Ark. – After a long day crisscrossing Arkansas in a motorhome, Tom Cotton receives a rock star’s welcome when he walks into the Craighead County Republican Headquarters in northeast Arkansas. He is there to thank volunteers who have been doggedly working the phones to get voters out to the polls.
"I've largely played the part I can play," he tells the crowd. "Now, it's up to you."
The work Cotton has done since he declared he would challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has him going into Election Day with a head of steam. The latest Real Clear Politics average has him up 7 points, a lead outside the margin of error.
“Arkansans are ready for a change in Washington,” Rep. Cotton told Fox News. “They know that Senator Pryor has been supporting the Obama agenda 93 percent of the time and that doesn’t reflect [Arkansas'] conservative values.”
Cotton has relentlessly pushed the point that a vote for Pryor is a vote to continue the agenda of President Obama. The president is very unpopular in Arkansas. Mitt Romney won this state in 2012 by 24 points.
Throughout the race, Pryor has kept his distance from the president, never asking him to come and campaign for him. At the same time, Pryor was happy to welcome native son Bill Clinton to the Arkansas campaign trail.
In recent days, Pryor has gone farther than he ever has to put daylight between himself and the president, telling Fox News that the biggest liability in his re-election bid is Obama.
“Well, you know, he has been a drag. I mean, I am just going to be honest about that,” Pryor said. “People here know that I have had my fair share of disagreements with him. You can look at gun control issues, Keystone pipeline. I have never supported one of his budgets.”
To Cotton, Pryor’s ‘conversion’ is too little, too late. He wonders why the senator wasn’t distancing himself from the president’s agenda for the past six years.
“Senator Pryor can talk about being an independent, but he’s voted with Barack Obama 93 percent of the time,” Cotton told Fox News.
Pryor acknowledged to Fox News that he voted for the president in 2008 and 2012, and while he did not say he would take those votes back if he had the chance, he did express dismay at the ultimate outcome.
“I’m disappointed in some of the things he’s done,” Pryor told Fox News. “I mean I think he has missed a lot of opportunities. I think, like a lot of people, I had a lot of hope that he could be a unifying force and all of that but it just hasn’t worked out that way.”
Cotton believes the state has already moved on, and the polls would seem to back him up. But there is a potential wild card in the race. Political legacy. Mark Pryor’s father David is a beloved figure in Arkansas, having been a governor, member of Congress and U.S. senator. Family name and familiarity counts for a lot in this state.
“You know the Bible talks about a good name is worth more than great riches,” Pryor told Fox News.
Many analysts believe that the only reason Pryor has managed to hold Cotton’s lead to single digits is because of family history. Former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her seat in 2010 in a 20-point Republican blowout.
Voters are aware of Pryor’s deep Arkansas roots, but the senator believes their decision will be based on how they feel about him, not his family.
“I think I’m really what people want,” Pryor told Fox News. “If you look at the polls, people are frustrated with Washington. They’re tired of the bickering, tired of the gridlock. They want some leadership.”
John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.