Preemptive strikes in Kentucky, Arkansas highlight Senate recruiting stakes

June 27, 2013

Democrats are charging that Tom Cotton "forgot about us" in Arkansas, while Republicans are casting Alison Lundergan Grimes as President Obama's "cheerleader in Kentucky."

It may sound like standard fare Senate attacks. But the thing is, neither of them are Senate candidates right now. It's the latest reflection of the ability of outside groups to dig into the recruiting phase of the campaign and highlights where two of the biggest questions on the 2014 map are planted right now.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) (Richard Rasmussen/AP)
Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) (Richard Rasmussen/AP)

It's no longer just campaign committees influencing who runs. The same outside groups that play substantial roles in the heat of the campaign are giving the potential opposition something extra to think about in Kentucky and Arkansas. And they are simultaneously signaling to the candidates on their side that, well, we've got your back.

Patriot Majority USA and Senate Majority PAC launched an ad Thursday attacking Cotton for "seeking the national spotlight" and supporting House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget blueprint. It's the latest salvo in an Arkansas Senate race that has yet to take shape, but is attracting a lot of outside attention.

Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club For Growth, both conservative groups, have released ads hitting Sen. Mark Pryor (D), and polling data showing Cotton would stack up favorably against the incumbent. The groups have not committed to a candidate, but there's a strong chance they would back Cotton if he runs, given his conservative record.

Cotton, an Iraq war veteran, has the unique ability to win support in both conservative and establishment GOP circles. So it's no surprise that Republican groups are giving him incentive to run -- and why Democrats are hitting back. (Pryor, it's worth noting, has also faced attacks from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun control group. He's hit back with his own ad.)

Something similar is going on in Kentucky, where Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) is considering challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). Grimes represents Democrats' best chance of competing with McConnell.

The same two Democratic groups that attacked Cotton went after McConnell last week. This week, a super PAC supporting the Republican jumped in with its own ad tying Grimes to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Aside from what the early ad campaign says about the ability of third-party groups, two other things are clear from the preemptive battle. One, Kentucky and Arkansas represent two of the biggest recruiting question marks on the map. They are not the only two (see our most recent rundown of the top 10 Senate races to read about the others in more detail), but the fact that they have attracted outside money suggests how formidable Grimes and Cotton would be.

It also illustrates that the campaign for the Senate doesn't begin when candidates officially announce their campaigns. Groups, donors, activists and committees begin wooing candidates and laying groundwork (which includes hitting potential opponents) well in advance.

And for pols like Grimes and Cotton, that means early attention -- some of the good kind, and some of the bad kind.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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