On Aug. 15, 2006, Tom Cotton’s platoon was patrolling the streets of Dora, a neighborhood in southern Baghdad, in the small hours of the morning. Riding shotgun in the second vehicle of his convoy, Cotton felt unusually secure. Combat engineers had cleared the streets of trash, which often obscured roadside bombs, and most people were indoors, in observance of the curfew. Looking out his window, Cotton saw a box in the road and thought, “That could hold a bomb.”
Then it exploded.
When the blast abated, Cotton’s Humvee was totaled, but his men were alive; their armor had withstood the impact. Later, a bomb squad inspected the site and told Cotton he had narrowly escaped death. Of the three artillery rounds in the bomb, only one half of one had detonated.
Today, Cotton is running for Congress, and so far, his luck is holding up. In July, Rep. Mike Ross (D.) of Arkansas’s 4th congressional district announced
he wouldn’t seek reelection. Like Mattie Ross in True Grit
, Cotton hails from Dardanelle, Yell County, which used to be part of the 2nd district. In April, however, the Democrat-led state legislature tore
some heavily African-American counties from the 4th district and fastened them to the 1st, so the latter’s freshman Republican congressman, Rick Crawford, would struggle to win reelection. To compensate the 4th, they added Cotton’s county, among others.
Now, Cotton, an Army reservist, lives in a district that, though it has elected only one Republican in its 136-year history, is trending red. In 2004, Pres. George W. Bush won it by three points, 51–48 percent. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) won it by 19, 58–39. Even Ross voted with the GOP 40 percent of the time. The Cooke Partisan Voting Index gives the Republican in the race a seven-point advantage. And in 2012, that Republican could be Tom Cotton.
The 34-year-old, sixth-generation Arkansan stands 6′5′’. He grew up on his parents’ cattle farm a few miles outside of town and attended Dardanelle High School, where he played basketball. In the fall of 1995, Cotton enrolled at Harvard College, where he initially struggled to maintain his grades. Soon, he came under the wing of Prof. Harvey Mansfield, who imbued him with a love for political philosophy — and for controversy. A self-styled “contrarian,” he joined the Harvard Crimson’s editorial board, where he often dissented from the liberal majority.
During his final year, for instance, Cotton wrote an editorial in which he argued, “Connecting classrooms and libraries to the Internet is a horrible idea” because it “has too many temptations . . . to distract students.” Last month, the Arkansas Democratic party circulated the piece and criticized Cotton in a press release for his “radical views.” In response, Cotton told the Associated Press that the Internet had “matured” in the 13 years since he wrote the column. Meanwhile, the Democrats posted their defense of the Internet’s educational merit on Facebook.
Cotton majored in government and wrote his senior thesis on The Federalist Papers. “I stopped with The Federalist and Alexis de Tocqueville,” he jokes. “I’m not a fan of what came after.” He graduated in the spring of 1998, after only three years of college. Thinking he’d enjoy the contemplative life, he spent the next year continuing his studies at Claremont-McKenna College — “a kind of philosophical finishing school,” says Prof. Charles Kesler, who taught him.
The rarefied air of the academy suffocated Cotton. “It’s a little isolated for me,” he admits. In the fall of 1999, Cotton entered Harvard Law School, and he was in his last year there on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, Cotton was walking out of class when he heard that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. When the shock wore off, Cotton decided he wanted to enlist in the Army.
“[It’s] like when your family’s attacked, you want to fight back,” Cotton told the Arkansas news outlet Talk Business last month. “That’s what I wanted to do for America.”
Unfortunately, he had committed to a clerkship with Judge Jerry Smith of the Fifth Circuit Court, and as a career counselor told him, “You do not tell a federal judge ‘no.’” So Cotton did the clerkship, practiced for a year to pay off his student loans, and enlisted in the fall of 2004.