Inside the Democrats' plan to save Arkansas -- and the Senate

This year, Arkansas is home to one of the nation’s most intense Senate races, as incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor faces a challenge from a first-term congressman, Representative Tom Cotton. Like many of this year’s competitive Senate contests, it features a Democratic incumbent desperately trying to survive in deeply hostile territory—in this case, a state Mitt Romney won by 23 points, or more than 250,000 votes. Other seats Democrats are trying to hold onto are in similarly tough states such as Alaska, North Carolina, and Louisiana.

To beat the odds, across the country Democrats have mounted an ambitious political organizing effort—the first attempt to replicate the Obama campaign’s signature marriage of sophisticated technology and intensive on-the-ground engagement on a national scale without Obama on the ballot. The effort is particularly noticeable in states like Arkansas and Alaska, which have small electorates and which haven’t been presidential battleground states for a decade or more. (In 2004, John Kerry initially tried to compete in Arkansas, but pulled out of the state three weeks before the election and lost it by 10 points.) In Arkansas, campaigns traditionally begin after Labor Day; this year, the airwaves have already been blanketed with campaign ads, from both the candidates and deep-pocketed outside groups, for months.

The Democrats’ Arkansas organizing effort kicked off with a canvass on June 7. “People were saying, ‘Robert, the election’s six months away! What are you doing?’” Robert McLarty, the director of the Arkansas Democratic Coordinated Campaign, tells me. “We are starting from a blank slate. People here have never seen what folks in Ohio and Pennsylvania are used to every year.” Throughout the entire 2010 election the party recruited 1,210 local volunteers; that number was surpassed in the first 30 days of this year’s effort. Seventy percent of the volunteers recruited so far have never worked for a campaign. They have registered more than 6,000 new voters. The Democrats believe there is an iceberg-like mass of latent votes that are theirs for the asking but have simply never been mobilized before.