The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The longest Senate race in the country? It’s happening in Arkansas.

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Around the country, brutal Republican primaries have left the eventual victors bruised and their bank accounts tired. While Thom Tillis was busy becoming the Republican Party's Senate candidate in North Carolina, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan was fundraising like mad for the general. Hagan has more than $8.6 million on hand. Tillis has slightly over $1 million.

In Georgia, assumed Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn has faced little competition. She has $3.7 million in the bank ready for the general. Her three likeliest Republican opponents don't have quite as much. Former Reebok CEO David Perdue has $470,000 on hand. Rep. Jack Kingston has $1.3 million. Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel has $337,000. And, two of these Republicans will face off in a primary that will drain even more of their fundraising.

But Tom Cotton hasn't suffered the same problem in Arkansas, where he is set to win today's Republican Senate primary with no resistance from the right or the middle. He has outraised incumbent senator Mark Pryor in the last three last reporting cycles. While Cotton's fellow Republican candidates are only now transitioning to the general election or gearing up to survive another round of primaries, Cotton and Pryor have been campaigning for November since last August. That means the general election has been going on for nearly nine months and still has five more to go. That's a long time.

Does that help Pryor or Cotton? Both sides of the race are trying to spin all this extra time to their benefit. "Because we've known that it was going to be Tom Cotton for a long time," said Justin Barasky, the Democratic National Senatorial Committee's national press secretary, "our game plan has been unchanged. Even though the plan hasn't changed, it's working."

Pryor has more money in the bank, despite being outraised. He has $4.1 million on hand, while Cotton has $2.4 million.

The latest NBC News/Marist poll has Pryor up by 11 percentage points. Fifty percent of registered voters in the state have a favorable view of the incumbent. Thirty-eight percent have a favorable opinion of Cotton, while 39 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Twenty-three percent of registered voters have never heard of Cotton or have no opinion of him. They have about five more months to form one.

Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Democratic Party, said, "The campaign may be long, but Cotton's record is long, too." He referred to the fact that Rep. Cotton was the only Arkansan to vote against the farm bill and the Violence Against Women Act.

"Without a primary, he said, "we can highlight his record that much longer."

In the end, Barasky said, "Even in a red state like Arkansas, Tom Cotton is too far out there. I think this works to our favor. "

When David Ray, communications director for the Cotton campaign, was told about the opposition's confidence that the Odyssey-esque length of the campaign was a blessing for them,  he laughed.

"I don't buy that."

Ray said that the Pryor campaign and its Democratic allies would have run ads against Cotton even if there were a competitive Republican primary. He points to the primaries in Louisiana and North Carolina, where the Democratic incumbent campaigns have run ads against the frontrunner for months. Before Cotton even announced his candidacy in August 2013, the Pryor campaign had already run an attack ad against him. Patriot Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC ran an ad against Cotton in February, months before the primary would officially coronate him.

"It's definitely an advantage for us," Ray said, "the fact that we didn't have a primary. It has allowed us to be more judicious in terms of spending resources and has left us in a strong positions post-primary."

Since the Cotton campaign hasn't had to worry about a primary, they're also ahead of schedule in planning their grassroots campaign, which will stretch across all 75 counties in the state. "Obviously, when you have a primary you don't have as much time to do this."

The Cotton campaign has already been canvassing "for a while now," Ray said, declining to say specifically how long.

Conservative outside groups have been functioning as a warmup act for eventual Republican senate candidates across the country while they are busy bickering with opponents that have ideological differences invisible to the naked eye. In the North Carolina Senate race, Americans for Prosperity had already spent more than $7 million against Kay Hagan by the beginning of April.

Arkansas has a small ad market, and is a far cheaper place to run ads than many other states with close Senate races.

Elizabeth Aymond, who runs Americans for Prosperity's Arkansas chapter, writes in an email that "AFP’s policy advocacy is driven by the specific policies in Arkansas, and not by any election." The group has spent about $2 million against Pryor so far. Marco Rubio's Reclaim America PAC ran an ad supporting Cotton last year.

Both camps also claim that the reason Cotton had no competition for his nomination is an advantage for their side.

"Republicans in Arkansas have been 100 percent behind Tom from the get-go," Ray said. "All that infighting and so forth you have in other states, we haven't had any of that."

While Ray sees that harmony as a positive, Barasky finds another advantage for their team. "The reason there was no competition in the primary," he said "was that this was the first race that the establishment and the tea party were together."

In many of the Republican primaries that have already concluded, the eventual winner was a careful conglomerate of conservative values and establishment veneer. In some cases, the "establishment" candidate was tugged to the right by the fractious opposition. In other far more frequent cases, a tea party candidate was found to have a low probability of saying something career-ending in the next few months and was given the establishment seal of approval. Without that alchemy of support, it has been nearly impossible for Republican candidates to succeed in 2014.

Devotion for Tom Cotton from the right has never been questioned. His 2012 congressional bid saw support from Club for Growth, which also endorsed his senate bid.

Establishment groups have also supported Cotton since his congressional bid. In 2011, the Weekly Standard swooned, "Arkansas novelist Charles Portis managed to get a lot of life out of his classic tale of "True Grit." But as Tom Cotton begins his campaign for Congress, many are left with a sense that in the years ahead the country could hear a lot more about another extraordinary figure from Yell County near Dardanelle." American Crossroads, which has typically been terrified of supporting tea party candidates because of electability issues, has signaled that it will get involved in the Arkansas Senate race.

Cotton didn't need anyone to push him to the right, and the establishment thought he looked plenty electable, especially in a state where the Republican Party has made significant gains in the past few years. In 2012, Republicans took over the state house and state senate for the first time since Reconstruction. In today's election, more Republicans will vote than Democrats in the primaries for the first time in Arkansas' history, predicts Jay Barth, a professor at Hendrix College. In Arkansas' competitive down-ticket races, establishment candidates have also faced little competition from the right. The Republican Party is still so young is Arkansas, Barth said, that it hasn't grown up enough to get bitter, which is what he sees playing out in other state's primaries.

It's important to mention that Pryor also profited from not facing a challenger. "One reason he's not in the spot Blanche Lincoln was in during the 2010 election is because he didn't have a challenger from the left." With Cotton, he's not so sure. "I don't know where the opposition would have come from."

The one thing that is certain? Arkansas voters are going to be sick and tired of hearing about Cotton and Pryor come November,  after more than a year of near constant ads, incessant calls from pollsters and knocks on their door.

"There's a sense of a real fatigue in the Cotton-Pryor race," Barth says, "mostly due to the millions of dollars in ads from outside groups, which have been pretty negative. It's quite an accomplishment that Pryor has fended off the attacks, but that might just be that people have gotten numb to the ads after awhile."