Hot Springs, Ark.
‘I picked up running in the Army,” says Representative Tom Cotton from the backseat of a car as we drive out of Hot Springs on April 26. On most days he tries to jog five or six miles. When he’s in Washington, serving in Congress, he usually takes a route around the monuments or along the Potomac River. “Everywhere I look, I see construction cranes — the signs of a healthy and growing economy,” he says. “I see more construction cranes on my runs in Washington than there probably are operating in the whole state of Arkansas.” The Republican pauses to let the contrast sink in. “Who’s paying for that?” He gestures out the car window. “Taxpayers. The people you see here in Hot Springs.”
On May 20, Cotton formally received the Republican nomination for Senate. Now he’ll spend the next five and half months dashing between the river plains of the Arkansas Delta and the highlands of the Ozarks, on a run for the Senate, against Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor, in a race that might represent the GOP’s best chance to defeat a sitting senator this year. Several recent polls have given Pryor a lead, including an NBC News/Marist survey of registered voters that showed the incumbent ahead of Cotton, 51 percent to 40 percent. Cotton’s internal numbers tell a different story, with the challenger ahead, 42 percent to 40 percent.
If he wins, Cotton’s triumph will complete Arkansas’s long evolution from yellow-dog Democrat to red-state Republican, making it the last of the Southern states to switch its loyalty, in a realignment that started more than a generation ago. It would also give Republicans a fighting chance to take control of the Senate — they probably can’t move into the majority without a victory in Arkansas — and it could even give them a new star with a bright future in national politics.
The 37-year-old Cotton seems to have it all: small-town roots, a pair of degrees from Harvard, and experience as a combat veteran. He grew up on his family’s cattle farm in Dardanelle, Ark., and he also grew tall: He’s a lanky six-foot-five. “I was a conservative right from the beginning, with lessons in small-c conservative values,” says Cotton. “My father used to say it’s not enough to live within your means — you need to live below your means.” Yet his parents didn’t vote as big-c conservatives. Like so many Arkansans, they were Democrats who supported Bill Clinton when he was governor of their state in the 1980s and again when he was president in the 1990s. They were party-line voters, not party activists. “They wouldn’t put up yard signs, because they didn’t want to offend anyone,” says Cotton.
When Cotton was 15, Clinton became president — and the success of this fellow Arkansan stirred Cotton’s interest in public life. “I started to read the front page of the newspaper, not just the sports pages and the comic strips,” he says. “It didn’t take long to realize that the conservative lessons of my upbringing didn’t translate into Democratic policies.” Cotton played basketball for his high school (team name: the Sand Lizards), earned excellent grades, and won admission to Harvard University. He went on to spend his undergraduate and law-school years in Cambridge. Referring to politics at Harvard, he notes: “The only way to get out of Harvard as a conservative is to go in as one.” Cotton wrote a right-of-center column for the Harvard Crimson and sought out the faculty’s handful of conservative luminaries, such as Peter Berkowitz, Mary Ann Glendon, and Harvey Mansfield, as well as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, for whom he worked as a researcher.
In between working on his bachelor’s degree and entering law school, Cotton went to California, first on a Publius Fellowship with the Claremont Institute and then as a student at Claremont Graduate University, where he studied America’s founding documents. It was a two-year master’s program, but Cotton decided that one year was enough: “It was a little sedentary for me,” he says. The training in constitutional thought still shows, however. At a gathering of volunteers at the GOP headquarters in Garland County, he talks about congressional term limits, which he opposes, by pointing out that the Founders debated them and settled the matter more than two centuries ago. He answers a question about President Obama’s executive orders by citing the “auxiliary precautions” of separated powers, as described by James Madison in Federalist No. 51. On the stump in the town of Malvern, he quotes from a speech in which Lincoln described the Union as an “inestimable jewel.”