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Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Part I

Tom Cotton at a campaign event in Hot Springs, Ark., May 2012.

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Yell County, Ark. — Tom Cotton is a Republican’s dream, and, for many Democrats, a nightmare. Let’s go through his bio, briefly — and at greater length later.

Born and raised in rural Arkansas. Harvard College. Harvard Law School. Because of 9/11 and the War on Terror, is impelled to join the military. Is advised to join the JAG Corps. Declines. Is trained as an Army Ranger. Leads troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is now running for Congress: a young, brainy, broadly educated, likable, down-home war veteran.

“He’s perfect,” says a lady at a Tea Party luncheon in Hot Springs. I later relate this remark to his mother. “No, he’s not,” she says. He is certainly “the political rock star of Arkansas,” as the Texarkana lawyer Johnny Goodson says.

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What did Joe Biden say about Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries? After he talked about “the first mainstream African American” and “articulate” and “bright” and “clean” (“clean”!) and “nice-looking”? “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Yes, a storybook, man.

Cotton is running as the Republican nominee in the Fourth Congressional District of Arkansas. Arkansas, like the other southern states, was solidly Democratic for generations. It has just recently turned Republican. It turned Republican much later than the other southern states.

Why?

Cotton has one explanation: Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. It made no sense for the state’s politicos to turn Republican, given that one of their own was in the White House. The Clinton effect “lingered,” says Cotton: but now Clinton is history, and the state is Republican.

President Obama has a lot to do with this — the Republicanization of the state. He is very unpopular here. For reasons both pure and impure. The impure, a Democratic politico tells me, has to do with race.

The Fourth District seems to cover half the state — the southern half of the state. Actually, it covers 45 percent of the state. There are three other congressional districts. The Fourth, as you can deduce, is sparsely populated. It has 21,000 square miles, and about 670,000 people.

The median income is about $30,000. Unemployment is one percentage point below the national average. The district is about 20 percent black, and there are many Hispanic immigrants, recently arrived.

It is a quite rural place, the Fourth District. The largest town is Pine Bluff, with 50,000. The next largest is Hot Springs, with 35,000. No other town has more than 20,000. Cotton’s hometown, Dardanelle, has 4,700.

He gives me a rundown of what people in his district do: There are lots of self-employed, lots of small-business owners. There are beef farmers, dairy farmers, chicken farmers . . .

Incidentally, Bill Clinton styled himself “The Man from Hope” — Hope is in this district. Clinton was born there. But he did most of his growing up in Hot Springs. “The Man from Hot Springs” does not have the same political ring to it. “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” does not quite work.

Another man from Hope, of course, is Mike Huckabee, the former governor, a Republican, who ran for president four years ago.

When I first met Tom Cotton, at a Dallas event last summer, I said — I wrote — “He looks like his name. What I mean is, he’s all-American, open, straightforward. Tall, lanky guy, like out of a Norman Rockwell painting (though the artist was from New York, and the candidate is from the South).”

Yes. I later learned that someone else had made just the same point: that Tom Cotton looks like his name.

Here in the district, campaigning, he is in what seems his uniform: casual button-down shirt, jeans, and boots.



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