Gun control advocates are running ads trying to force Sen. Mark L. Pryor to change his vote on background checks, but the attacks may do more to shore up the Democrat’s position ahead of the 2014 elections in Arkansas — a state where the GOP had hoped to be competitive.
The ads by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-founded by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, have given Mr. Pryor a chance to trumpet his support for gun rights and to distance himself from President Obama, who is unpopular in the state, and liberal out-of-state interest groups.
The spat began last month when MAIG started running an ad that accused Mr. Pryor of letting Arkansas voters down when he voted against a proposal that would have expanded background checks on gun purchases.
Firing back with an ad of his own last week, Mr. Pryor cast himself as a defender of the Second Amendment and assured voters that “no one from New York or Washington, D.C. tells me what to do.”
“The Mayor of New York City is running ads against me because I opposed President Obama’s gun control legislation,” Mr. Pryor said. “Nothing in the Obama plan would have prevented the tragedies like Newtown, Aurora, Tucson or even Jonesboro,” Mr. Pryor says in the 30-second spot. “I am committed to finding real solutions to gun violence, while protecting our Second Amendment rights.”
The fireworks come 17 months out from the 2014 election, where the GOP’s hopes of seizing control of the Senate hinge on them winning Democratic seats in states — including Arkansas — that supported GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Mr. Pryor is the sole Democrat in his state’s congressional delegation, and Rep. Tom Cotton is considering a bid. Polls show the freshman Republican could give the incumbent a run for his money.
Mr. Pryor also is the only one of the five Democrats who opposed the expanded background check bill that MAIG is targeting in television ads.
“This is when you’d love to be a fly on the wall,” said Larry J. Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Did Bloomberg’s gun control group air those anti-Pryor ads to hurt or help Pryor? Pryor has got to be loving the situation. He gets to simultaneously attack a very unpopular president, plus the liberal mayor of New York. It puts Pryor just where he wants to be in Arkansas, which gave Obama a miserable 37 percent of the vote in 2012 and defeated the other Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln, in a landslide back in 2010.”
John Feehery, a GOP consultant, said that the airwaves battle helps Mr. Pryor. “Pryor just made it harder for Republicans to beat him,” Mr. Feehery said.
But David Ray, spokesman for the Arkansas GOP, said it hurts him by depressing Mr. Pryor’s Democratic base of support.
Mr. Ray also said the fight gives Republicans a chance to show that “Pryor has undergone an extreme makeover in order to try to win re-election.”
“In 2002, he campaigned on claims he would support the assault weapons ban,” he said. “In 2004, he voted for a 10-year extension to the assault-weapons ban and defended his vote by saying ‘I hope the folks back home will understand.’”
Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist and senior aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said Mr. Pryor also has to worry about his support for “Obamacare” and the Obama administration’s fiscal policies, which put him at odds with voters.
Mr. Madden, though, said it’s smart for Mr. Pryor to take a swing at Mr. Bloomberg.
“If I’m running a campaign in Arkansas, no matter the party, I wouldn’t mind being able to pick a fight with some New Yorkers. And I say that as a New Yorker, too,” he said.
Michael Cook, a veteran Democratic strategist in Arkansas, said Mr. Pryor is being savvy, pointing to a recent Public Policy Polling survey that found that the issue of expanding background checks is deeply partisan — with 85 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents supporting them.
The same poll found that 45 percent of independent voters said that they would be less likely to support Mr. Pryor if he voted for background checks, while 28 percent said that they would be more likely.
“At the end of the day, it seems like among independent voters he is right where he needs to be because in Arkansas the crucial middle does not seem to support background checks,” Mr. Cook said.