Rep. Tom Cotton officially announced Tuesday that he will challenge Arkansas Sen. Mark L. Pryor for his seat, giving the GOP a prized recruit in the race and raising the party’s hopes that his candidacy puts it a step closer to taking over the Senate in the 2014 election.
With Republicans already well-positioned to pick up a trio of open Senate seats, their path to a majority likely hinges on them ousting at least three incumbent Democrats — and Mr. Pryor is a top target.
Speaking at a community center in his hometown of Dardanelle, Ark., Mr. Cotton said he joined the Army after the Sept. 11. 2001, terrorist attacks and then ran for Congress to defend our freedoms and Constitution.
“And that’s why today, I am announcing my candidacy to be your United States senator,” said Mr. Cotton, sparking applause from the audience.
The 36-year-old tied Mr. Pryor to President Obama, saying the Democrat voted with him 90 percent of the time, and singled out his support for the 2009 stimulus package and “Obamacare.”
“It is time that we said, ‘Enough,’” Mr. Cotton said. “Arkansans deserve a senator who will stand with them and up to Barack Obama.”
Clint Reed, an Arkansas-based GOP consultant, said Mr. Cotton, a Harvard Law School graduate and veteran of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is a “huge get for national Republicans” and his candidacy makes Arkansas “ground zero” in the fight for control of the Senate.
“For Republicans to get control of the U.S. Senate, they have to win Arkansas — it is the keystone race,” Mr. Reed said. “The flip side of that is that for Democrats they have to defend” the seat to keep their majority.
Mr. Reed predicted the race will boil down to which party does a better job of turning out their base and defining Mr. Cotton, who was elected to Congress for the first time in November.
“It is not necessarily Pryor versus Cotton — it is who can define Tom Cotton,” he said. “If Republicans do that in a way that I think they can, Republicans will have a very good chance of winning this race. If they sit back and let Democrats brand Tom Cotton the way they like, then it is a different story.”
Mr. Pryor, who will be seeking his third term, pre-empted Mr. Cotton’s announcement by rolling out a television ad that knocks the freshman lawmaker for “blind ambition” and entering the race “just seven months after being sworn into Congress.”
In the minutelong spot, the narrator says Mr. Cotton has voted against the farm bill, and backed plans to transform Medicare into a voucher program and to privatize Social Security. They say that Mr. Cotton opposed a bill that cut interest rates for student loans, the violence against women act and equal pay for equal work.
“Tom Cotton should be running, not for higher office, but running from his own record of hurting the people of Arkansas,” the narrator says in the spot.
With roughly 15 months to go before the midterm election, Mr. Cotton’s announcement is a piece of a nationwide puzzle that will decide whether Republicans can win back the Senate for the first time since losing it in the 2006 election.
The Democratic caucus is expected to grow following an October special election in New Jersey to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg — giving them a 55 to 45 edge over Republicans.
The GOP would then need to pick up six seats, net, to win the Senate.
As it stands, political handicappers say the GOP should capture open seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana — three red states that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in the 2012 election.
They also say control of the Senate likely hinges on whether Republicans can oust three of the four most vulnerable Democrats — a list that includes Mr. Pryor as well as Sens. Mary L. Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska and Kay R. Hagan in North Carolina.
The math, though, could change.
Democrats hope that underdog Alison Lunderland Grimes can knock off Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and that Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, can emerge victorious in race to fill an open seat in Georgia.
Whatever the case, Mr. Cotton’s announcement is good news for Republicans. A Harper Polling/Conservative Intel poll this week found that Mr. Cotton held a 43 percent to 41 percent edge over Mr. Pryor.
Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, said Mr. Cotton is “a credible candidate” and gives “Republicans a good chance of winning state.”
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said that while Mr. Pryor has some tough votes to defend, he enjoys all the advantages of incumbency and has tried to put some distance between himself and national Democrats.
The latest campaign finance reports, filed June 30, show Mr. Pryor has more than $3.9 million cash on hand, while Mr. Cotton has more than $1 million.