Previewing the Arkansas U.S. Senate debate

Tom Cotton and Mark Pryor are scheduled to debate Oct. 14, 2014, at the University of Arkansas.
Tom Cotton and Mark Pryor are scheduled to debate Oct. 14, 2014, at the University of Arkansas.

This week, Arkansas’ U.S. Senate candidates are debating each other for the first time.

On Oct. 13, frontrunners Republican Rep. Tom Cotton and Democrat incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, faced off with the state’s Libertarian and Green Party candidates on the Arkansas Educational Television Network. A second debate on Oct. 14 features only Cotton and Pryor.

The Tuesday debate will be broadcast live in the region, by KATV of Little Rock, KAIT of Jonesboro and KHBS/KHOG of Northwest Arkansas. Others can watch a livestream at C-SPAN.org at 8 p.m. ET. (Follow us on Twitter at @PolitiFact, and suggest fact-checks with #PolitiFactThis.)

We’ve been tracking Cotton and Pryor’s campaign ads and attacks for over a year. Here’s a recap of our fact-checks so far.

Party Playbook

The Senate race in Arkansas is a tight one -- with Cotton, a tea party challenger, holding a lead on Pryor, a conservative Democrat. It’s one of the races that may decide which party holds the Senate come 2015.

Pryor has served in the Senate since 2003 and is running for his third term, while Cotton is a relative newcomer to Washington, having served in the House of Representatives since just 2013.

Cotton’s ads so far tend to stick to the Republican playbook, making claims about Pryor that could apply to just about any Democratic senator.

For example, Cotton’s campaign has emphasized Pryor’s support for the Affordable Care Act, which Pryor hasn’t shied away from, unlike many other Democrats up for re-election. (Cotton, on the other hand, supported shutting down the government in October 2013 unless Congress agreed to defund the Affordable Care Act.)

Cotton has accused Pryor of voting for "special subsidies" that exempted Congress and their staff from the health care legislation. The subsidy referred to is the government continuing to share the cost of insurance premiums, which is standard for every establishment that offers insurance to its workers, so we rated the claim False. Cotton also claimed that Pryor "continues to insist" that Obamacare is "an amazing success." We gave that claim a Mostly False, because Pryor said it only once, and Cotton took it out of context.

Cotton also said Pryor "cut Medicare to pay for Obamacare." The law doesn’t "cut" Medicare funding that already exists. Rather, it controls future spending, which politicians on both sides of the aisle called for, so we rated that claim Half True.

This was one of many ads in Arkansas that have focused on an important voting bloc -- seniors -- and their access to health care.

Crossroads GPS, a Republican-aligned group, said, "Arkansas seniors depend on Social Security and Medicare," while Pryor supports an overhaul that would make it so they "couldn’t get Social Security until they turn 68 or 69." In their claim, Crossroads GPS referenced an interview Pryor gave to a local reporter, but they had selectively edited the video to alter its meaning, so it’s Mostly False.

Pryor has said the opposite -- that Cotton is bad for Medicare and senior citizens. Pryor said Cotton "voted to turn Medicare into a voucher system," which was a provision in Rep. Paul Ryan’s, R-Wis., budget proposal, which Cotton supported (Mostly True). Pryor also said Cotton’s vote for the Ryan budget (and its changes to Medicare) would "increase out-of-pocket expenses for every senior in Arkansas" (Mostly False). The research on whether or not the proposed changes would increase costs is inconclusive.

Cotton’s record on disaster relief has also been a major topic in the Tornado Alley state -- particularly in light of Cotton’s mission to reduce government spending as much as possible, in line with other tea party lawmakers.

Most recently, Pryor said Cotton "voted against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola." Cotton voted against one version of a 2013 pandemic and emergency preparedness bill. However, Cotton voted for the final version, which Pryor also supported. We rated that claim Mostly False.

Pryor said, "Cotton is the only Arkansan in Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- to vote against disaster relief five times" (Half True). Cotton responded, saying he "voted for disaster relief and full funding of FEMA" (also Half True). Cotton voted against five bills or amendments that would have gone to immediate aid or funded disaster relief programs. However, most of the votes in question had to do with Hurricane Sandy -- nowhere near Arkansas. And there were times when Cotton voted to approve disaster relief funding, as long as there were spending cuts to other programs to make up for it.

Most recently, Senate Majority PAC, a liberal political action committee, claimed that Cotton "got paid handsomely working for insurance companies." It turns out Cotton has never worked for an insurance company, so we rated that claim False.

More than a year ago -- before Cotton even declared his candidacy -- Patriot Majority USA, a pro-Democratic group, said Cotton voted to provide Congress with "taxpayer-funded health care for life." The claim referred to the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program, which is what Congress has used for years. The government funds a portion of federal employees’ health insurance costs just like private-sector employers that offer health insurance to their workers. And the coverage doesn’t last "for life." For that claim, we gave our first Pants on Fire in this race -- there’s always time for another one!

And Cotton got a Pants on Fire for a commercial where he defended his opposition to the farm bill.  Cotton said, that President Barack Obama "hijacked the farm bill (and) turned it into a food stamp bill." That’s not correct. Food stamps have been part of every farm bill enacted since 1973.