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Southern Democrats Competitive Despite Rough Midterm Climate

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Darrin Phegley / AP

Democratic candidates are holding their own in three key Senate races despite a daunting political environment for their party in the upcoming midterm elections, according to new NBC News-Marist polls of Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky.

And in one race in particular, Democrats are more than just competitive.

In Arkansas, with less than six months until Election Day 2014, incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., leads Republican challenger Tom Cotton by 11 points among registered voters, 51 percent to 40 percent. (That finding is largely in line with other polling from that race since April showing Pryor either leading or tied.)

In Georgia, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn is running neck and neck against all of her potential GOP opponents in November.

And in Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is within one point of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell among registered voters, 46 percent to 45 percent.

“These are competitive states as far as the general is concerned,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Arkansas, which was once thought to be Democrats’ most vulnerable [contest for an incumbent], may not be the most vulnerable.”

Still, these three Democratic candidates face a situation where President Barack Obama’s approval rating is stuck in 30s or low 40s in these states, and where strong majorities believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction – hardly a good position for the party controlling the White House.

The NBC-Marist polls of states holding primaries on May 20 also show that establishment Republicans are leading their Tea Party rivals in the intra-party contests in Georgia and Kentucky.

Image: Mark Pryor
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., motions to a worker at his Little Rock, Ark., campaign headquarters Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Pryor, who filed to run for re-election earlier Friday, faces a challenge from Republican Congressman Tom Cotton in the 2014 election. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) Danny Johnston / AP

Why Democrats are leading Arkansas’ Senate race, but losing the gubernatorial contest

While Pryor leads the Senate general election contest in Arkansas, Republican Asa Hutchinson has a seven-point advantage in the state’s gubernatorial contest over Democrat Mike Ross, 49 percent to 42 percent.

The reason why both Pryor and Hutchinson are ahead in their statewide races: Both men are leading among independents – Pryor has a seven-point edge over Cotton here (48 percent to 41 percent), and Hutchinson has a 15-point advantage (52 percent to 37 percent).

"These are competitive states as far as the general is concerned"

In addition, Pryor (with a 50 percent to 35 percent favorable/unfavorable rating) is viewed in a more positive light than Cotton is (38 percent to 39 percent) among voters.

Pryor also is getting the support of 32 percent of voters who disapprove of President Obama’s job in Arkansas.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn finds herself running competitive against all the major Republicans in the race:

  • Nunn gets the support of 41 percent of registered voters, versus 45 percent for businessman David Perdue;
  • It’s Nunn 42 percent against 43 percent for Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga;
  • It’s Nunn 43 percent against 43 percent for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.;
  • It’s Nunn 44 percent against 42 percent for Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.;
  • And it’s Nunn 42 percent versus 39 percent for former Secretary of State Karen Handel.

But just like in Arkansas, one Democrat’s standing in Georgia’s Senate contest doesn't translate to the state’s gubernatorial race, with incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal leading likely challenger Jason Carter, 50 percent to 40 percent. (Carter is the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.)

GOP establishment is ahead of the Tea Party

Turning to the May 20 primaries in these states, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell holds a commanding 32-point lead over Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin among likely GOP voters, 57 percent to 25 percent.

And in Georgia’s Senate primary, the two more establishment-backed Republicans – David Perdue and Jack Kingston – are ahead in this crowded field, with Perdue getting the support of 23 percent of likely GOP primary voters and Kingston getting 18 percent.

Karen Handel is in third place with 14 percent, while Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey are tied at 11 percent.

The Georgia primary heads to a runoff if no one gets above 50 percent on May 20, and Perdue also leads as the top second choice among likely voters.

“The Tea Party isn’t having as big of an influence at this point” as it did in past elections, Miringoff said.

The NBC-Marist poll in Arkansas was conducted April 30 to May 4 of 876 registered voters (which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.3 percentage points).

The NBC-Marist poll of Georgia was conducted April 30 to May 5 of 2,196 registered voters (plus-minus 2.1 percentage points) and 533 likely Republican primary voters (plus-minus 4.2 percentage points).

The NBC-Marist poll of Kentucky was conducted April 30 to May 6 of 2,353 registered voters (plus-minus 2.0 percentage points) and 408 likely Republican primary voters (plus-minus 4.9 percentage points).