There has been lots of speculation (including this column) on the future of Senator Thad Cochran in the 2014 election cycle. Whether he runs for reelection or not, Mississippi appears likely to send a Republican back to the Senate. Republicans are positioned well in the U.S. Senate for 2014 and require a net gain of six seats to reach a 51 seat majority. They don't have to play much defense; the Democrats only hope to take a Republican seat appears to be Kentucky or Georgia, both of which are unlikely flips in "red states."

The GOP will look to make pickups in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia where Democrats have retired and not yet recruited strong replacement candidates. Republicans will also need to knock off at least one Democratic incumbent in Alaska, Iowa, or North Carolina.

But necessary to any Republican controlled Senate in 2014 will be the Republican defeat of Democratic incumbents in two states neighboring Mississippi: Louisiana's Mary Landrieu or Arkansas's Mark Pryor.

Pryor (son of former Arkansas Governor David Pryor who held the U.S. Senate seat his son now occupies for three terms retiring in 1997) is a former state representative and state attorney general and won his Senate seat in 2002 by defeating Republican incumbent Tim Hutchinson, the first Republican Senator from Arkansas since Reconstruction. Pryor has tried to walk the line between his Democratic colleagues in Washington, DC and his conservative state with varying success. He recently said Obamacare, "has been an amazing success story so far" in a state where polling suggests voters are 60 percent less likely to vote for Pryor because of his vote for Obamacare.

He was unchallenged by the GOP in 2008, but now faces a challenge from freshman Congressman Tom Cotton.

Cotton is a Harvard educated attorney who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. Army and operates his family's cattle farm in Russellville.

Cotton won his seat in South Arkansas with 59 percent of the vote which is troubling for Pryor. South Arkansas is the "swing" area (much like Northeast Mississippi) that went strong for Pryor against Hutchinson due to Pryor's father's representation of the area years ago. If Cotton can post solid numbers in Republican areas and run strongly in his home southern portion of the state, he can pull out a win over the Democratic incumbent. Despite Pryor's incumbency and family name, pundits rate this race a "toss up" or "lean Republican."

Helping Cotton in this endeavor is Batesville, Mississippi native Justin Brasell. Brasell is Cotton's senior strategist and comes to the fight a veteran of several successful high profile wins: he managed South Dakota's John Thune's reelection campaign; he directed Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's 2008 reelection in Kentucky; he captured a Democratic held U.S. House seat in Kentucky against the father of Hollywood star George Clooney (and brother of country crooner Rosemary Clooney) and directed the re-election of rising Republican congressional star Kristi Noem of South Dakota. He worked with the National Republican Congressional Committee to oversee House races in thirteen states in 2010; but Mississippians know him for running the successful 2011 campaign of Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves.

Brasell says the key distinction for Arkansas voters between Pryor and Cotton is Pryor's support of the Obama agenda, "Senator Pryor votes with the Obama Administration more than 90% of the time. There are few Arkansans who agree with President Obama 90% of the time. That record, along with Senator Pryor having cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, will be major factors in the race."

Cotton kicked off his campaign last week with a barbecue in his hometown of Dardanelle (population 4,745) that drew over 400 supporters, followed by other stops in all four congressional districts. Soon after, the Club for Growth endorsed Cotton's candidacy and is expected to invest heavily in the race - just one of what is expected to be many outside groups spending on both sides of the race.

Arkansas has been a hold out in the partisan shift that put much of the South into the Republican fold in past decades, but the GOP is catching up. In 2010, two-term incumbent Democrat U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln was defeated by Republican Congressman John Boozman 58 percent to 37 percent.

A poll commissioned by the National Republican Senatorial Committee this month gives Cotton a two point lead over Pryor. That poll puts President Barack Obama's approval rating in Arkansas at 35 percent with a 59 percent unfavorable rate.

A Cotton victory across the Delta and the Mississippi River from Mississippi is essential to Republican prospects of taking the U.S. Senate, and were Cochran to run again, for a Mississippian to once again chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, or Agriculture Committee, or whichever committee Cochran's seniority led him to pursue.

Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.