In an interview at his cramped House office on the fourth floor of the Cannon building — freshmen don’t get spacious facilities — Cotton plays down his role as a Paul Ryan–type leader of the conservative bloc. But he is eager to battle any attempt, however well intentioned, to bring forth legislation that’s not entirely enforcement-based.
“There is widespread resistance to legalization, because logic and history say that you will have the legalization and not the enforcement,” Cotton says. “We shouldn’t even be spending this much time on immigration. This is very much an inside-the-Beltway, elite-driven issue, where elites in both parties are aligned.” Cotton adds that out of the more than 1,800 letters and calls his office has received, only a dozen have expressed support for the Senate’s bill. “That’s south of 1 percent,” he says.
“I’m going to keep trying to do what I tried to do at the conference meeting, which was to persuade my colleagues on my view of the facts behind the Senate bill,” Cotton tells me. “I want to try to make the case broadly to the policy community, to the American people, of what I think is the right policy.” He acknowledges that he’s huddling with a variety of off-the-Hill leaders but reiterates that his constituents are fueling his increased cloakroom lobbying and his flurry of television appearances.
A Senate run is another motivating factor, according to Republican insiders who know him well. Cotton and his political team are plotting a potential race next year against incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor. There have held meetings with donors in Washington, D.C., and held informal strategy sessions in Dardanelle, Ark., Cotton’s hometown. Cotton’s confidants think Pryor is vulnerable, especially since he voted aye on the Senate’s immigration bill. But as an amiable, pro-gun Democrat, he’ll be tough to beat, and Cotton isn’t expected to make a final decision until later this year.
Fellow Republicans talk about Cotton as a senator in waiting. “There’s a little jealousy among some of us sophomores who see Tom rising like some kind of perfect-résumé rocket,” says a House Republican from the class of 2010. “But he’s generally pretty low key, and he’s a lot different than Steve [King] and Dana [Rohrabacher of California], the guys I associate with the war against amnesty.” Adds a senior House Republican: “He’s got the smarts and that farmer charm, which can take you far here.”
“You’ve got to take him seriously,” says Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of Boehner’s inner circle. “People are listening to what he has to say about how the Senate bill gives way too much power to the executive branch. He’s rightfully concerned about whether the administration would even enforce our border-security bills.”
Cole says Cotton’s leadership qualities are what set him apart, and lend his contribution to the debate a kind of weight within the Republican conference that’s hard to quantify. He says many members share Cotton’s position, and they echo his rhetoric, but it’s rare to see someone “come at this issue with the precision and heart of a man who served in the 101st Airborne, or with his ability to make an argument.”
Cotton’s Journal article showcased that ability. He detailed how “effective enforcement” doesn’t require triggers within a bloated bipartisan bill, but stand-alone bills committed to expanding and improving the border fence, creating a visa-tracking system, and building a “workable employment-verification system.” He used history — specifically Ronald Reagan’s controversial immigration law from 1986 — to demonstrate how comprehensive reform is so routinely full of promises easily forgotten.
Boehner and his advisers are paying attention, and Cole says he expects Cotton to be consulted more as the various immigration bills are considered. King predicts that Cotton could be one of the reasons that a path to legalization dies in the House — the conservative who gave the critics the boost they needed this summer. “The issue is the conference as much as the bills, and he pinpoints that,” King says.
But Cotton’s influence, for the time being, does not extend far beyond the insular world of House conservatives. Some of the top players hardly know him. “Who?” asks Democrat Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, a leading member of the House’s working group on immigration, when I mention Cotton. He says he doesn’t follow internal Republican dynamics. “I don’t even know what state he’s from,” he says.
“So, where’s he from?” Gutiérrez asks.
“Arkansas,” I say.
“Arkansas! Okay!” he says, rushing off to a vote.
Soon enough, he won’t have to ask.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.