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Tom Cotton, Presumptive Candidate
The former soldier is raising funds, winning praise, and worrying Democrats.

Tom Cotton

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Eliana Johnson

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.”  

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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.



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