In Arkansas Senate Race, Syria Emerges As Defining Issue

Sen. Pryor's decision to turn away from Obama on Syria, could help in Senate race.

Syria has become a top issue in the Senate race between Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., left, and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

Syria has become a top issue in the Senate race between Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., left, and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

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President Barack Obama is learning that when it comes to foreign policy, politics aren't always what they seem. Take Arkansas for example.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., has bucked his party's president, announcing Saturday he'd vote against a resolution to intervene in the region. Meanwhile, his opponent in the 2014 Senate race Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is building on his credentials as a defense hawk and calling for action.

[READ: Congress Returns From Recess With Syria in the Spotlight ]

Pryor joined a handful of Democrats including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., announcing opposition to the strike in recent days.

"Before any military action in Syria is taken, the administration must prove a compelling national security interest, clearly define a mission that has a definitive end-state, and then build a true coalition of allies that would actively participate in any action we take," Pryor said in a released statement . "I do not believe these criteria have been met, and I cannot support military action against Syria at this time."

While intervention remains an unpopular stance with the more than 60 percent of Americans opposed, Cotton, a veteran of both the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been actively making his case in for U.S. involvement.

Cotton returned to Washington last week for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and said he would have liked to see the president take action sooner, but still strongly supports intervention.

"I am deeply worried that our core national security interests are at stake in Syria," Cotton said during the hearing. "The day the United States does not act is not just a day that Bashar al-Assad knows it's open season for chemical weapons, but also the day Kim Jong Un knows that, and most ominously, the day that Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spins his centrifuges into overdrive."

The juxtaposition could have major ramifications in a Senate race that looks to be one of the tightest in the country. Before Syria emerged as a major issue, Cotton was gaining momentum, collecting key endorsements from the conservative Super PAC Club for Growth, and enjoying an election-year map that strongly favored him. According to the Cook Political Voting Index, an independent analysis of the country's political landscape, Arkansas has grown much more conservative than it was in 2008 when Pryor ran for re-election.

[ALSO: Senate Committee Passes Resolution to Strike Syria]

Syria could be the turning point of the election, political pundits say.

"In this case, which could be a defining moment of the Obama presidency, Cotton will be on record in support of the Democratic president when many of his constituents are against action," says Angie Maxwell, a southern politics expert at the University of Arkansas. "On the other hand, Pryor has always walked a very fine line on being a very moderate, moderate Democrat. Breaking with the president on this issue might make him seem more moderate."

Charles Dunn, a conservative commentator and professor emeritus of political science at Clemson University, says Cotton's strong interventionist position could backfire, especially if religious conservatives don't show up at the polls to support him.

"It's a courageous position for Cotton because so many political and religious conservatives take a different position," Dunn says. "He could lose the race on this."

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