- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Delayed treatments and other widespread problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs inject a new issue into the increasingly expensive race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, even despite the VA secretary’s resignation.

It’s a double-edged sword, offering both candidates a new spin on arguments they’ve been making in the months-long fight for Pryor’s seat. It offers Cotton a new chance to try and paint Pryor as too aligned with the Obama administration. Pryor, meanwhile, is using Cotton’s response as another way to portray his rival as too focused on politics and not on the state’s needs.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation on Friday came after a growing number of lawmakers had called for his ouster in the wake of an inspector general’s report that detailed problems within the VA. The report had focused on Phoenix’s troubled hospital, where 1,700 veterans seeking treatment had never been added to official wait lists.

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The list of lawmakers seeking Shinseki’s ouster grew by day, and included many Senate Democrats seeking re-election this fall. By Friday morning, four of the state’s six congressional delegation members had said it was time for Shinseki to go. Cotton, who had served in the Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, had called for Shinseki’s ouster earlier in May.

Pryor said he was outraged by the problems uncovered at the VA, but was one of the few Democrats facing tough races who stopped short of calling for Shinseki’s exit. Pryor also met with the leaders of VA facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville to see if the problems had reached Arkansas.

“I want to see how widespread this is, I want to see what else is going on there, I want to get inside the numbers a little bit, not just the big top-line number,” Pryor said last Thursday. “This is a very serious problem for the Veterans Administration, and I think over time we’re going to have to see a lot of changes there. That may include changing the secretary and obviously it’s going to include changing a lot of people in Phoenix.”

Pryor, Cotton and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation have said the focus should be on reforming the VA now that Shinseki is gone. But the politics surrounding those reforms and the fallout from the VA’s problems will linger as a campaign issue.

Seeking an opening in the race to unseat Pryor, Cotton and Republicans have been trying to use the VA crisis a new way to attach the two-term senator to a president who remains deeply unpopular in the state. An outside group had begun airing ads accusing Pryor of being silent on the crisis, a charge that Pryor’s campaign said was untrue and an effort to exploit the scandal for political gain.

It’s a dynamic that’s being echoed in several high-profile races around the country. Cotton is among several Republican candidates the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee targeted with releases criticizing past votes on veterans issues.

Cotton showed no signs of letting up on his criticism, with a statement targeting the senator within an hour of Shinseki’s resignation.

“I’m disappointed that, as usual, Senator Pryor stuck with President Obama until the very end, but even the President realized Secretary Shinseki needed to resign,” Cotton said in a statement released by his campaign. “Our veterans and all Arkansans need a senator who will lead, not one who will defer to Barack Obama.”

Pryor’s campaign accused Cotton of being more interested in cheap political attacks than addressing the VA crisis itself.

“While Mark is working to get to the bottom of this issue and deliver as promised answers about the impact on Arkansas’ veterans and a plan to fix this, Congressman Cotton is more interested in playing election year politics,” spokesman Erik Dorey said.

Expect more exchanges like this until November.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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