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.
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.
Cotton was sitting in evidence class as a third-year law student at Harvard when Osama bin Laden’s terrorists struck on 9/11. “I wanted to enlist in the Army right away,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to wait.” Yet a series of practical problems intervened: He had only a year to go in law school, didn’t want to pay off his college debts on a private’s salary, and already had committed to a clerkship with a federal judge in Houston. “I felt duty-bound to the judge who had hired me,” he says. “I also realized that the bad guys weren’t going away.” So Cotton stayed in school but started to read more books on military history and international politics than on the law. His favorite authors included Donald Kagan, Fred Kagan, and Victor Davis Hanson. He also turned to the classics: “I read all of Thucydides.” He graduated from law school, clerked for the judge, worked briefly at a pair of law firms, and paid off his loans. He signed up for the Army shortly after Thanksgiving in 2004 and shipped off to basic training in January. The next year, he was a platoon leader in Iraq.
Cotton was on patrol south of Baghdad when the New York Times reported on a secret government program to track the finances of terrorists. When he returned to his base, he heard about the article, looked it up online, and fired off an angry letter to the editor: “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.”
The Times ignored Cotton’s letter, but Power Line, a conservative website, published it, causing a minor sensation. Back in Iraq, Cotton heard that his battalion commander was annoyed at him for airing his views, and Cotton worried that he would lose his own command. “I thought I might get killed in Iraq,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d have an existential crisis.” Then General Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, came to his rescue, sending out a mass e-mail that praised the “words of wisdom from one of our great lieutenants in Iraq.” Cotton kept his command — and promised not to surprise his immediate superiors in the future.
After Iraq, Cotton served in the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, and in 2008 he went to Afghanistan. Over there, he read Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, the book about a disastrous operation against a Taliban leader in the country’s Hindu Kush region. Cotton saw the film version earlier this year. “The movie is more intense than my experience was, but it’s a realistic depiction of the war,” he says. He adds that Lieutenant Michael Murphy, the Navy SEAL who died in the effort and received the Medal of Honor posthumously, made the right decision to release the shepherds who stumbled across his men, as opposed to killing them — even though the shepherds then revealed the soldiers’ location to the Taliban. “Either way, the mission was compromised,” he says.
On March 5, in an interview on MSNBC, Senator Pryor appeared to sneer at Cotton’s military service: “I think that’s part of this sense of entitlement that he gives off, that almost is like, ‘I served my country, therefore let me into the Senate.’” Pryor is part of an Arkansas political dynasty — his father, David Pryor, was a governor and a U.S. senator — so he’s in no position to grumble about any other candidate’s “sense of entitlement.” Since the blunder, he has tried to clarify, saying that he meant to criticize Cotton’s lack of accomplishment in the House, not his time in uniform. Yet the confusion created an opportunity, and Cotton released a commercial that co-stars his old drill sergeant. It’s lighthearted and humorous — an attack ad that doesn’t feel like an attack ad.
Pryor’s “sense of entitlement” line grows from a caricature that the senator would like to project upon his rival: the sense that Cotton is a “young man in a hurry.” Pryor has a point. Cotton left the Army in 2009, won election to Congress in 2012 at the age of 35, and, about seven months after taking his seat, declared his candidacy for the Senate. “Some people say I’m a ‘young man in a hurry,’” says Cotton, who is so used to being questioned about this charge that he addresses it without being asked. “They’re right. We’re facing urgent problems in Washington, and I’m in a hurry to solve them. I joined the Army because I love our country and I’m worried about it. That’s why I ran for Congress. I’m worried about passing on our constitutional system, I’m worried about how we’ll be $18 trillion in debt later this year, and I’m worried about Islamic radicals with nuclear weapons.”
The last time Pryor ran for the Senate, in 2008, Republicans didn’t even bother to field a candidate against him. Back then, in the wake of the one-sided 2006 election, Arkansas was almost a one-party state. Democrats controlled the legislature, as they had since Reconstruction. The governor was a Democrat, as were both senators and three of its four House members. The election of President Obama, however, led to quick reverses. In 2010, Republican John Boozman trounced Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln by more than 20 points, and two House seats flipped from Democratic to Republican. Two years later, Mitt Romney took more than 60 percent of the state’s presidential vote, Republicans captured the legislature, and Cotton continued the GOP’s congressional surge, winning a seat left open by a retiring Democrat.
Now Congressional Quarterly calls Pryor the “most endangered incumbent” of 2014, and local Republicans show off T-shirts with a slogan over an image of Arkansas: “Red Is a State of Mine!” Doyle Webb, the GOP chairman of Arkansas, is ecstatic: “Democrats are making their last stand.”
Yet defeating Pryor won’t be easy, as those recent polls indicate. “A lot of races around the country are just getting started, but we’ve been in a general-election environment for months,” says Cotton’s campaign manager, Justin Brasell. Just as Cotton announced his candidacy last August, Pryor put out a negative ad that accused Cotton of “blind ambition.” By April the two campaigns and independent political organizations had already combined to spend about $8 million in TV ads, according to the Washington Post. The election could turn on personal details, such as the fact that Cotton just got married and Pryor just got divorced. That’s what happened a dozen years ago, when Pryor ousted Republican senator Tim Hutchinson, who had left his wife and married a former staffer.
If nothing else, every Arkansan with a television soon will know about Pryor’s voting record, which includes a decisive vote for Obamacare. That puts him in lockstep with many of his fellow Democrats in D.C., but not with Democrats in Arkansas: Mike Ross, who won 84 percent of the vote in the May 20 primary to become the Democratic nominee for governor, voted against Obamacare as a congressman.
Pryor, for his part, will knock Cotton’s record, which includes votes against the farm bill (Cotton condemns it as “a food-stamp bill”) and in favor of Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plans. An anti-Cotton website sponsored by Pryor’s campaign portrays Cotton as waging a political war on seniors and women.
“I want to focus on the biggest problems,” says Cotton. “We have a debt crisis and a fiscal crisis in programs like Medicare. Paul Ryan is the face of reforms we advocate in the House. Who is that in the Senate?” Cotton casts himself as running against a single senator as well as a Democratic majority: “We pass a lot of good legislation in the House, but it goes to die in the Senate — or not even in the Senate, but on Harry Reid’s desk, so that senators like Mark Pryor don’t have to vote on it.”
At a time when Republicans seem more libertarian and skeptical of foreign entanglements than ever before, Cotton is a hawk on defense and foreign policy. He wants to boost the Pentagon’s budget and to project American power. Last September, he and Representative Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.), a fellow Army veteran, co-authored a Washington Post op-ed that urged Republicans to support “decisive, effective military action” against the Assad regime in Syria. He labels Edward Snowden “a traitor.” He endorses the National Security Agency’s cell-phone surveillance and thinks that conservatives who oppose it are mistaken. “The story came out close to the revelations about the IRS and its punishment of conservative groups, and a lot of people conflated the two,” he observes. “But they’re very different. Lois Lerner of the IRS is a full-blooded partisan. The NSA is a military organization staffed by career officers who act in accordance with the law.”
The congressman clearly hopes to join this GOP youth movement. Between now and November, he’ll try to persuade voters to agree with the buttons that Baxter County Republicans passed out at their latest Lincoln Day Dinner: “I’m picking Cotton.”
— John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan and national correspondent for National Review. This article is adapted from the June 2, 2014, issue of National Review.