(WASHINGTON) -- Seven months into his first term in elected office, Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is running for a chance to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in 2014, in a race that could very well determine the balance of power in the Senate. Cotton, 36, is young, confident, and the great bright hope of the GOP as they aim to take control of the Senate for the first time since 2007.
"If Republicans don't win Arkansas it's hard to see how they get the majority back," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and president of Potomac Strategy group.
Cotton officially announced his candidacy at a community barbeque in his hometown of Dardanelle, Ark., Tuesday, nodding to his relative lack of experience in Washington.
"Some say I haven't been in Washington long enough, I've been there long enough to know that Washington needs to change," Cotton said. "I don't have a lot of seniority, I don't think that's a bad thing these days."
Cotton said Pryor has put Barack Obama over Arkansas by supporting policies like the Affordable Care Act and comprehensive immigration reform.
"Arkansans deserve a senator who won't stand by and accept the status quo. I will be that senator," Cotton said. "Mark Pryor doesn't put Arkansas first anymore, Mark Pryor puts Barack Obama first."
A former Iraq and Afghanistan veteran with two degrees from Harvard, Cotton's biography and his willingness to give voice to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party, has already made him a person to watch in the few months he's been in Washington.
At a time when Republicans are at odds with each other over the wisdom of a plan to defund President Obama's health care law and over the National Security Agency's surveillance scandal, Cotton has essentially split the baby.
He supports tea party-backed policies on fiscal issues, and sides with conservatives over his more libertarian leaning colleagues like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on national security questions.
"He's establishment by pedigree but tea party by ideology," Mackowiak said. "That is the future of the Republican Party."
Cotton has cleared the Republican field, evidence that establishment National Republicans are firmly behind him, and he has the support of tea party-aligned group Club for Growth.
Fifteen months before the election, Pryor has already cut his first campaign ad, using Cotton's ultra-conservative votes against him and attacking his opposition to the Farm Bill, lowering student loan interest rates, the violence against women legislation and paycheck fairness bills.
"I don't know who Mr. Cotton's been voting for, but it hasn't been for Arkansas. When you vote against student loans and against the farm bill and you vote to cut Medicare and Social Security, you're not voting for Arkansas, you're carrying someone else's water," Pryor said in a statement Tuesday.
Also at stake is the future of Democrats in the South.
Cotton's candidacy is a challenge to the very notion that Democrats in the mold of former President Bill Clinton can still survive politically in the South. This race will not only be a challenge to the power of Clinton's brand in Arkansas, but also the legacy of David Pryor, Mark Pryor's father, and the state's former governor and U.S. senator.
"You had some very powerful Democrat officials here, whether it be Bill Clinton or [former Governor] Dale Bumpers or David Pryor, that sort of held the Democratic coalition together," said Clint Reed, former southeast regional director for the Republican National Committee and a former executive Director of the Arkansas Republican Party. "When I say Democratic coalition I mean older white males. We've seen that erode across the south and one of the last places is in Arkansas."
Cotton represents Arkansas's 4th Congressional District, which also includes Hope, Ark., Clinton's birthplace.
After two terms in the Senate, Pryor finds himself seriously endangered in 2014, when just five years ago he coasted to re-election without so much as a Republican opponent.
In short, the entire political conversation in red states like Arkansas has shifted since Pryor's last election.
To hear Republicans tell it, the tea party wave in 2010 moved much of the electorate in red states like Arkansas further right, as President Obama's policies have become more and more unpopular.
Pryor's allies agree that the national political climate -- i.e. disapproval of Obama -- will have an impact on this race, but they argue that Pryor has a solid reputation among Arkansans.
"Mark remains tried and true to Arkansas," said Greg Hale, a Democratic strategist and a long-time Clinton associate. "He lives here, and listens to the needs of all Arkansans when making tough decisions in Washington."
"He is proven to be a conservative Democrat who is fiscally responsible who, much like his father, fights for seniors, families, students, veterans and farmers," Hale added.
In essence, Pryor is a moderate Democrat caught between an increasingly liberal Democratic Party and an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
And it shows in the attacks he has sustained from both the left and the right.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, challenged Pryor by airing a negative ad highlighting his vote against background check legislation that failed in the Senate in April and aiming the message at African American Democratic voters who Pryor will need to win re-election.
And conservative super PAC Senate Conservative Action aired $320,000 worth of ads against Pryor already this year, months before Cotton even got in the race.
For his part, however, Pryor has been preparing for the likelihood of a competitive race for months.
He enters this contest with a $4 million war chest, after raising $1.2 million in the second quarter and $1.9 million in the first quarter of this year, thanks to a $1 million boost brought in at a Clinton fundraiser in March.
Political strategists on both sides expect the race to cost between $10 million and $12 million on each side.
Cotton will have to raise a significant amount of money and so far he's proven himself to be an adept fundraiser.
"He's a tenacious fundraiser," Reed said. "There is a correlation between those candidates that are successful and those candidates that can raise money."
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