First-term Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) admitted he is vulnerable in his race for re-election against challenger Mark Pryor, the Democratic attorney general of Arkansas.
Hutchinson made the remarks July 27 to publishers, editors and reporters of Arkansas newspapers gathered for the annual convention of the Arkansas Press Association at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs.
Greg Harton, editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville, asked the senator if he was at the peak of his vulnerability because of his divorce during his first term in the Senate and because he votes with his party 95 percent of the time.
Hutchinson responded that former Arkansas Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, Mark Pryor's father, had also voted with their parties as frequently as he had. But he said he had also voted with Sen. Ted Kennedy, who is at the opposite end of the political spectrum, many times, and he had co-sponsored bills with some of the Senate's most liberal members, including Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).
The senator said he accepts responsibility for the failure of his first marriage. "I'm thankful for forgiveness and grace," he said. Hutchinson's divorce and remarriage are thought to have hurt him with his political base: conservative evangelicals.
The senator said facing a challenger who is the son of one of the most popular leaders in recent Arkansas history, as well as being a first-term Republican in the state's most heavily Democratic state, assured the race would be close. Already the race has eclipsed the previous record for campaign spending in the state as both parties vie for a majority in the almost-evenly divided Senate.
The press association invited the two candidates to debate at the convention, but Pryor said scheduling conflicts prevented him from attending Saturday when candidates for governor and secretary of state debated. Pryor spoke instead at the Friday luncheon.
Pryor criticized Hutchinson for voting so frequently with his party. "He's not listening to us," he said. "He's listening to his party."
The attorney general said there is too much partisanship in Washington. "Just because something is a Democratic idea doesn't mean it's a good idea, and just because it's a Republican idea doesn't mean it's a bad idea," he said.
He asserted the race is not about which party will control the Senate, but he predicted the Democrats will pick up five or six seats.
Pryor said his political philosophy is closer to his father's than former President Bill Clinton's.
He said the issue he most often hears about on the campaign trail is the rising cost of prescription drugs. He said many seniors must choose between food and medicine because they can't afford both. He outlined what he called a compromise plan for prescription drugs that would include a provision to guarantee the lowest prices for medicine.
Hutchinson questioned the "scoring" of Pryor's drug plan, saying it is doubtful it could be achieved at the cost Pryor projects. The senator said he resents his challenger criticizing him for serving six years in the Senate without seeing the Senate pass a prescription drug plan. He said Mark Pryor's father had served longer and made prescription drug prices a priority, but no legislation was passed on the issue during his tenure.
"It wasn't his fault," Hutchinson added. "It's the system."
Hutchinson said he doesn't want to change the nation's posse comitatus law, which forbids the use of the military for civilian policing. "There's good reason why our country has civilian control of the military," he said.
But the nation faces "a new kind of enemy" with terrorist sleeper cells known to exist within our borders, he said. Despite this, he said, "I'm very skeptical about breaking down the wall."
Pryor accused Hutchinson of trying to weaken with amendments an anti-terrorism bill proposed by former President Clinton. The challenger said this is one of many proofs the senator is out of touch with the state.
Pryor said the senator had voted to abolish the Department of Education, voted against the Freedom to Farm bill, voted to eliminate school lunches, voted against some school construction projects, voted to privatize Social Security, voted to tighten the market for American goods to Cuba and voted against the COPS program to provide temporary federal funding for local police officers.
Hutchinson said he regretted that Pryor was unable to attend Saturday so he could answer his accusations face to face. He said he was the only Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee who voted for the Farm Bill this year. He said his seat on the committee, as well as his seats on the Armed Services; Veterans' Affairs; Health, Education and Labor; and Special Aging committees, put him in a good position to represent the needs of Arkansas.
The Armed Services Committee has become the most important in the Senate in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he added.
Hutchinson defended welfare reform, which he said had cut the welfare rolls in half without increasing the number of persons in poverty. He said its tough work requirements have worked, giving many Americans the dignity that comes with work.
"We shouldn't back off the reforms that have worked," he said.
Pryor promised to listen to the voters of Arkansas. "I try to talk about issues that they care about," he said.
Bob McCord of Arkansas Times asked Pryor if it was hypocritical of him to oppose school vouchers for poor children while sending his own children to private schools. Pryor said the question made him angry and he would have to count to 10 before answering. Then he said public schools often reflect the problems of society, and he and his wife had decided they would do what was best for their children regardless of the political ramifications. He insisted he is a big supporter of public education.