U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor speaks to members of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Pryor is seeking his third term in office and is being challenged by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, who represents Arkansas' 4th Congressional District. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – The ad war Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton are waging over border security highlights just how much the GOP is counting on the immigration issue to boost their odds in the fight for an Arkansas Senate seat. It also shows how much Democrats are willing to engage on the issue.
The influx of thousands of young immigrants across the Mexican border and the fight in Washington over how to address it gives Cotton a chance to revive a topic he cited as one of his top concerns when he launched his bid to unseat Pryor a year ago. He's getting help from fellow Republicans in his home state, who are opening a multi-front push that includes visits to the border and raising the prospect of legislative hearings as they try to keep the issue in the forefront over the August recess.
Based on Arkansas' history, it's far from certain whether it's a strategy that will offer gains.
Immigration has offered mixed results for Arkansas politicians on both sides of the debate. Efforts at the state level to push for new restrictions by barring many state services to those in the country illegally have fizzled before the state Legislature. But so have repeated attempts to allow the state to charge in-state college tuition to the children of those here illegally.
The debate between Pryor and Cotton focuses primarily on the immigration overhaul measure approved by the Senate last year that most agree has no hope of ever being considered in the House. Cotton had spoken out against the measure before he launched his bid against Pryor, penning a column in the Wall Street Journal opposing the bill last summer, and he's regularly referred to it as amnesty.
The measure creates a pathway to citizenship over 13 years for millions of immigrants in the country unlawfully, but also sets out a series of requirements for securing the border that must be met first.
Cotton has continued focusing his criticism on Pryor's vote on that measure, with his latest television ad and comments suggesting the latest influx can be blamed in part on the immigration reform bill. Cotton said immigration is the top issue that comes up when he talks to voters around the state.
"It's not surprising when you announce to the world that you're about to give amnesty to anyone inside the United States that people outside the United States start streaming across your border," Cotton told The Associated Press before the ad began airing. "That was the utterly predictable consequence of that legislation along with the president's policies."
Pryor has pushed back against the ad, moving quickly to put up his own spot defending the immigration reform measure and featuring a quote from Republican Sen. John McCain — an author of the Senate-backed immigration bill — saying it's not intellectually honest to call the measure amnesty.
Pryor is defending the bill while he's also distancing himself from President Barack Obama's possible use of executive orders to address immigration.
"I'm not for government by executive order. (The president) needs to work with Congress, he needs to show some leadership, bring people together, get this done in a bipartisan way, find ways through this," Pryor told AP last week. "That's part of being president, lead the nation and lead to a solution."
While Pryor and Cotton wrangle over immigration, other GOP figures are also focusing on the issue. U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin and Sen. John Boozman have made separate trips to the U.S.-Mexico border, while state Sen. Bart Hester sent a letter to the governor asking for details about unaccompanied minors being placed in Arkansas. In the letter, Hester also hinted at the possibility of legislative hearings on the issue.
With Hispanics making up a small percentage of the state's voting age population, focusing on border security may offer less risks for Republicans in Arkansas than on a national level.
Advocates of immigration reform are still holding out hope that there can be a way to address the issue despite the political wrangling.
"I'm optimistic that people in Washington will wake up and acknowledge the need and potential impact on the economy," said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. "Even if it's just a little bit. Any progress would be welcomed at this point and is badly needed."