Pryor catching it from left and right

Sen. Mark Pryor, who is seeking a third term in next year’s Democratic primary, is catching it from left and right. Hardcore conservatives regard him as another “Washington Democrat,” the political spawn of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi — a Big Government type who helped nudge Obamacare along. Liberals, such as they exist in Arkansas, and many of the party’s moderates think him a wimp, even a traitor to the cause.

For months Pryor, never any rational person’s notion of a genuine liberal, has been tacking right, trying to find the political center that he believes, not unreasonably, has moved in the same direction. His mumbled, fumbled answers to questions on such cultural hot buttons as abortion and gay marriage, however, have served to further embolden the Republican hierarchy and freshly irritate the spear carriers of his own party. Now Pryor’s refusal to assist gun control legislation — he bucked Obama and the Senate leadership last month as one of four Democrats to vote against expanded background checks for firearms sales — has brought him an adversary in a distant city. But could the adversary actually be an ally?

Earlier in his career Pryor voted to renew the ban on assault-style weapons, an effort that fell short. Today, with the National Rifle Association the nation’s most feared political organization, having millions to spend on “issue” advertising and no reluctance to spend it, will Pryor’s Second Amendment strike the gun lobby as the real thing? Or will it look to another candidate, say, Fourth District U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, with not a trace of gun legislation in his record? That Cotton’s “record” is only in its fifth month may matter less than his utter, announced disdain for any gun restrictions.

Pryor’s willingness to accommodate his constituents opposed to any firearms legislation is hardly surprising; in lopsided votes the just-recessed Arkansas General Assembly, with most Democrats voting in the majority, enacted a dozen gun “rights” bills, balking only at an “open carry” proposal whose sponsors say they’ll keep trying. Pryor’s nod to the NRA, however, won’t make any difference to the Republican councils of Arkansas and Washington (from where the serious money flows): they have marked Mark Pryor for defeat, and he will face the fight of his political life.

In the best tradition of liberal self-defeatism, the Democratic order is, naturally, pecking at Pryor, determined to teach him a lesson. So it thinks.

The least damaging instructional came from Mr. Obama’s White House, which let it be known far and wide that it was deeply disappointed in those Democrats who helped thwart the background check bill, which would have been an enormous win for the Administration. Vice President Biden warned that opponents of the bill, especially Democrats, would “pay a price at the polls” for breaking ranks. But Team Obama evidently has decided against poking its finger in Pryor’s eye, as it had hinted it might, by using an “independent” organization to run television and radio spots criticizing his vote.

Now, though, comes a different entity, and at last (mid-week) report not even pleas from the Senate’s top Democrat — the aforementioned Reid — will deter it from giving Pryor a public spanking. It’s called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and it’s the brainchild, and financial beneficiary, of billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With members from the 50 states (including Mayors Larry Bryant of Forrest City and Lawrence Owens of Hughes), the Bloomberg group plans to bankroll broadcast advertising against members of Congress of both parties who might be vulnerable to a bit of persuasion. Why the mayors count Pryor among them is less than clear, but the plan is to shower (especially) African-American audiences in Arkansas with messages linking Pryor to gun violence.

Politico reports that Reid, appalled at the prospect, dispatched aides to New York to try to dissuade Bloomberg’s consortium. Not only could Arkansas offer no more saleable Democratic alternative to Pryor, they argued, it was too late to try to find one and fund one (Pryor has almost $4 million in his campaign treasury). Did they think any Arkansas Republican would be more to their liking? And were they not aware that Democrats had more at stake in next year’s elections than the GOP — and that control of the Senate was at stake?

No go. Pryor must pay, they replied.

Here’s the thing: assuming the mayors — Pryor will mention Bloomberg and the mayor of Boston, not those of Forrest City and Hughes — proceed and try to slap Pryor around, bring him around, they may in fact be doing him a favor. This is Arkansas.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.