Tom Cotton, Presumptive Candidate

by Eliana Johnson
The former soldier is raising funds, winning praise, and worrying Democrats.

Tom Cotton may be the only one who has not acknowledged that he will make a bid for the Senate in next year’s midterm elections. He’ll attempt to pick off Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, who is considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the country. Widely viewed as Pryor’s strongest potential challenger, Cotton, a freshman congressman, could be an essential player in Mitch McConnell’s quest to reclaim a Senate majority. And, though he’s not talking about it — yet Cotton is playing the role of Senate candidate, and Democrats are already trying to bring him down.

Cotton, a farm boy from Yell County, Ark., who carried his district by nearly 20 points last year, has not officially announced his candidacy, but he is fundraising aggressively. The conservative hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer and former Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor last month hosted a fundraiser for him in New York City that hauled in over $100,000 from high-dollar Republican donors including Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. There, according to one attendee, Senor joked about Cotton’s looming senatorial bid, “just to acknowledge the elephant in the room.” “The subtext was, ‘Okay, we all know why we’re here, but let’s not put Tom in a tough spot — and no one did,” says the source. Cotton was happy to ignore the subject, too. The ever-restrained congressman “did not say a word about running.”

Sources say that the Harvard Law school graduate, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is also building his war chest at home in Arkansas. GOP fundraiser Noelle Nikpour tells me that, in surveying the 2014 landscape, Republican strategists view Pryor’s seat as a “relatively cheap” one to pick up. Nikpour estimates that it will cost between 7 and 8 million dollars to mount a challenge to Pryor. The bang-for-your-buck aspect of the potential matchup is “one reason the race is attracting national attention,” she explains. Nonetheless, David Ray, communications director for the Arkansas Republican party, cautions that money will not determine the outcome of the race: “Pryor is going to be well-funded, there’s no doubt about that. A race like this is going to be more about message than it is about resources.”  

Democrats are already working to shape that message and devoting the resources broadcast it. As far as they’re concerned, Cotton is the man to beat: For two weeks, beginning in late June, a team of Democratic super PACs ran an attack ad against him on local television, charging that the 36-year-old freshman set his sights on higher office as soon as he arrived in Washington. A narrator intones: “Tom Cotton, just elected and already seeking the national spotlight. Behind the spotlight, Tom Cotton forgot about us.” The ad went on to attack him for supporting Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which would have, it said, “essentially end[ed] Medicare.” (Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gave that claim four Pinocchios.) “It’s clear that they perceive him as a threat, and that’s why they’re so desperate to attack him so early,” Ray says.

Privately, Cotton emphasizes that he’s in no rush to make a decision, and that Southern politicians have the luxury of operating on a more relaxed timeline than their counterparts elsewhere. His office is quick to point out that Arkansas’s junior senator, John Boozman, did not announce his intention to challenge Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln, whom he defeated in November 2010, until January of that year.

But there are other factors at play, too. Cotton already has both the name recognition and fundraising base that others must work to establish early on. During his short time in Washington, he has managed to align behind him disparate factions of the conservative movement. That affords him the luxury to wait it out. And, whenever he throws his hat in the ring, according to a GOP strategist, “He will have a lot of help.” Cotton is unique in that he “unites the different donor bases in the party: New York finance types, heartland industrialists and small-dollar donors, and the major PACs: Crossroads, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Club for Growth,” the strategist adds. “There aren’t a lot of people everyone agrees on, but everyone agrees Tom should run.”  

Though he’s remained tight-lipped about his own potential candidacy, it is Cotton’s outspokenness on a few key issues — national security and immigration chief among them — that have caught the attention of the opinion leaders and donors who move elections.

His name percolated in conservative circles even before he entered politics when, as a platoon leader in Iraq, he penned a bitingly critical letter to the New York Times after reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau exposed a top-secret Bush-administration program intended to cut off terrorist financing. “I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law,” he wrote. “By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.” The Times did not publish the letter, but the conservative blog Powerline (whom Cotton copied on the message) did; the letter went viral.

His political stock rose quickly after he announced his congressional bid. Five months before he was elected to Congress, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was comparing him favorably to Bill Clinton. Cotton, like his Arkansas predecessor, is presidential material, Kristol argued. “Both are unusually intelligent and gifted political figures, well educated and with a common touch, individuals who can connect with Middle America and with political and financial elites,” he wrote. “Clinton was first elected to public office in 1976, as Arkansas’s attorney general, at age 30; Cotton, 34, is four years behind Clinton, because he chose to serve his country as an Army infantry officer, whereas Clinton chose to dodge military service.”

Before he was even sworn in to Congress, Cotton was out with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense. The congressman-elect argued that Hagel, in calling for a troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2006, had “abandoned the very troops he once voted to send to war” and could not “be counted on to stand by our armed forces.”

Views such as these have earned the frank praise of party heavyweights such as Senor. In a letter asking donors to support Cotton, Senor wrote that, while some in the GOP want America to recede from the world stage, “Tom is the type of individual, based on his own history and his command of the issues, who can resist this siren call and explain — in a convincing, reassuring, and powerful way — why America needs to provide leadership in the world, for the sake of security and peace, as well as for the strength of our democratic allies.”

On immigration, an issue now dividing the Republican-controlled House, Cotton has emerged as a leader of the caucus’s conservative flank, staunchly opposing both the bill that emerged from the Senate as well as the positions of his colleagues, such as Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, who see room for compromise. He spoke out against the Senate legislation in a private meeting of the House Republican conference before once again taking to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to air his views with typical candor: “The House of Representatives will reject any proposal with the Senate bill’s irreparably flawed structure, which is best described as: legalization first, enforcement later . . . maybe.”

Polls indicate that, though he has yet to announce his bid, his candidacy is already a competitive one. The Senate Conservative Fund last month released a survey showing Cotton running neck-and-neck with Pryor, who is likely to come under fire for his vote in favor of Obamacare. President Obama is not popular in Arkansas, where he received only 37 percent of the vote in 2012. “The reason Blanche Lincoln lost is her support for Obamacare,” Ray tells me. “Mark Pryor is going to have the exact same baggage to deal with.”  

An Arkansas political consultant who calls Cotton a friend is bullish on his prospects. As an attorney and former soldier, he says, Cotton is “the most aggressive guy in the political world I’ve ever been around. He knows he’s good.” Prediction: “He’s going to kick Mark Pryor’s ass.” The only thing left for him to do, it seems, is make his candidacy official.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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