LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A two-term Democratic senator sees a drop in his approval numbers as he gears up for re-election, an increasing number of voters say they're worried the state is headed in the wrong direction and more of them are blaming Democrats than Republicans for the federal government shutdown.
Time for Arkansas Republicans to pop open the champagne and celebrate, right? Not so fast.
The latest figures from the University of Arkansas' annual Arkansas Poll offer bad news to Democrats as they try to rebound from Republican victories over the past two election cycles. But the survey also offers plenty of warning signs to the GOP that could extend well beyond next year's election.
Taken in the final days of the federal government shutdown, the survey offers a hint of just how much anger Arkansas voters hold toward Washington over the standoff that left agencies, parks and other services shuttered for 16 days.
The clearest sign of that anger shows up in the approval numbers for Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who's seeking re-election next year, and Republican Sen. John Boozman. Both lawmakers saw their approval numbers drop to 34 percent among likely voters — a decrease from 53 percent last year for Pryor and from 45 percent for Boozman.
"We're very much in the mainstream in blaming everyone in Washington D.C. for everything...The fact that Boozman suffered as much as he did is as telling about the depth of people's general dissatisfaction about the shutdown," said Janine Parry, who directs the annual UA poll.
The drop in approval came during a shutdown that Pryor and Boozman both said they opposed.
The challenge for Pryor and Democrats comes in the near-term. Counter to national polls that show Republicans suffering political fallout from the shutdown, the Arkansas Poll showed more likely voters pinning the blame on Democrats and the White House. Thirty-nine percent said they blamed Obama and Democrats more, compared to 27 percent blaming Republicans. Thirty-four percent said they blamed both parties.
Pryor's campaign has been running television ads blaming Republican rival and U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton for the shutdown, noting that the GOP congressman backed the efforts to tie spending bills to defunding the president's health care law. The spots also highlight Pryor's work with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who were tasked with negotiating an end to a shutdown.
Boozman, for his part, had criticized the defunding push in the days leading up to it publicly and privately.
Pryor's campaign says the ads it's airing will explain to voters the contrast between the incumbent senator and Cotton when it came to the shutdown. But for Boozman, who is up for re-election in 2016, trying to highlight his stance in a way that will keep voters on board in a general election but not invite a primary challenge could be an obstacle.
The unknown from the poll is how far that anger goes to the rest of the state's congressional delegation, since it didn't include approval ratings for Cotton or the state's three other U.S. House members.
The biggest test of that anger may come from the Pryor-Cotton matchup, which the Arkansas Poll and others have shown to be a dead heat with many voters still undecided. But that anger may be outweighed by disapproval for Obama, whose unpopularity hit a new low in the poll's results.
The other ray of hope for Democrats could come in 2016, with the possibility of another presidential run by Hillary Clinton. The former first lady and ex-secretary of state won the support of 44 percent of likely voters, compared to 42 percent for a generic Republican, in that matchup.
Those numbers, plus the close match-ups for governor and Senate, may offer hope to Democrats that the same kind of personality-driven voting still exists that helped Republicans like Mike Huckabee break through when the state was solidly Democratic.
"In some ways personality can outweigh the party brand," Parry said. "We may see signs of that in these results."