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.
Because of Cotton’s education, an Army recruiter suggested he take a position with the Judge Advocate General Corps. But Cotton declined: He wanted to be an infantryman. In May 2006, Cotton deployed to Iraq as a second lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division. He led a 41-man air-assault infantry platoon on daily patrols of Baghdad. In March 2007, Cotton joined the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, where he conducted military honors funerals for the nation’s fallen.
But the writer in Cotton never gave up his pen. When the New York Times disclosed the Bush administration’s secret program to monitor terrorists’ finances in June 2006, Cotton wrote an irate letter to the Times, which the conservative blog Power Line published. “You may think you have done a public service,” Cotton wrote, “but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers.” Revealing his legal expertise, Cotton told the Times that it had broken the law: “By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.”
Liberal trolls accused Power Line of fabricating the letter: What Harvard Law grad would write such a thing? But he was real, and the incident raised his profile. Arkansas pols read the letter with interest, including state senator Cecil Bledsoe, who now supports Cotton: “I was so impressed. I thought, ‘Who in the world is this Tom Cotton?’”
In 2008, Cotton volunteered to serve as an operations officer for a reconstruction team in Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan. He returned home in July 2009 and considered a run against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D.), at his friend state senator Michael Lamoureux’s prompting. When big-money donors shut their wallets to Cotton — lest they alienate Lincoln, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee — he declined. Instead, he worked as a management consultant in the Washington, D.C., office of McKinsey and Company, where he focused on such industries as health care, energy, and agribusiness.
As a veteran, Cotton speaks with specificity on military issues. He supported President Obama’s decision to send 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, though he wished Obama had sent the full 40,000 the top brass had requested. But he opposed the president’s announcement that he would withdraw all surge troops from the country by September 2012. “We’re withdrawing them in middle of fighting season,” Cotton warns.
On immigration, Cotton dubs himself, à la Herman Cain, a “tall-fence, wide-gate kind of guy.” Enforce our border, he counsels, and “turn off the magnet that attracts illegal immigrants.” The E-Verify program, he argues, “in principle is a good system, but has a lot of practical problems. We’re in no position yet to force all employers to use it.”
He opposes amnesty: “We can just say if you ever want to be secure in your status, you have to go home and apply for citizenship from there.” Remember the people who are waiting to come to here legally, he advises. “My interpreter in Afghanistan has been trying to get here for five years. At any time, he could have gotten on a plane to Pakistan, then on a plane to Saudi Arabia, then on a plane to here and overstayed his visa. But he hasn’t done that because he’s trying to do the right thing.”
On the economy, Cotton is a free-marketeer. “We don’t want the government to be picking winners and losers, because they keep picking losers,” he quips. But he’s more forgiving toward farm subsidies. Although he says he’s “open” to reducing government support of all industries, he adds, “Other governments give massive subsidies to their agricultural industries in a way the U.S. doesn’t, and we can’t unilaterally disarm.” Nonetheless, he supports Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” plan and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
After declaring his candidacy on August 7, Cotton took only eleven days to qualify for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program: He raised $342,000 in the third quarter, during which he was active for two months. It was a new record: the most an Arkansas candidate — Republican or Democrat, incumbent or challenger — had raised in his first quarter ever. With $331,000 in cash on hand, Cotton is accumulating the resources necessary for a serious campaign.
He also is accumulating rivals. Beth Anne Rankin, who ran as the Republican candidate against Ross in 2010, wants a do-over. The former Miss Arkansas boasts high name recognition because of her previous campaign, but she did lose to Ross by 17 points, 57–40. Still, as a former policy adviser to ex-governor Mike Huckabee, Rankin can count on his support. “I am absolutely endorsing her and will actively help her,” Huckabee writes in an email to NRO. “She is a terrific candidate and seasoned campaigner who has spent most all of her life in the fourth district.”
Huckabee’s endorsement may be underwhelming. In 2010, he endorsed Scott Wallace in a primary against the eventual Republican nominee for the 2nd district, Rep. Tim Griffin, and Wallace lost by 24 points, 62–38. Despite speculations among Arkansas pols that Griffin would endorse Cotton, Griffin tells NRO that he’ll stay neutral in the primary.
Even so, Rankin herself recently qualified for the Young Guns program: She raised $170,000 in the third quarter. And she can charm a crowd. “She can walk into a restaurant and make every person in the place feel like her friend,” says Jason Tolbert, a columnist for Talk Business. Cotton, on the other hand, is “a more serious personality — what you would expect for a former military guy.”
Also in the race is small-business owner Marcus Richmond, who’s hitting the right notes with tea partiers. “At this point, we are most interested in finding out from these candidates which ones really understand the threat the U.N. poses to America’s sovereignty,” says Diane Silverman, chairwoman of the Garland County Tea Party. “I’m sure that most candidates really do care about that issue, but the one who did speak out about it was Marcus Richmond.”
Arkansas pundits believe Cotton is the strongest of the three candidates, but his impressive résumé — and the attention it’s won him — has stoked some resentment in certain corners. “There’s a feeling on the ground that Washington is trying to pick our candidate for us,” says Alan Clark, chairman of the Garland County GOP. “And I think it’s going to lead to a backlash against Tom.”
Clark adds, however, that if Cotton wins the primary, “I’ll be 100 percent behind him.” And it’s easy to see why: The 4th district is ripe for a Republican pickup. And a thoughtful, conservative war veteran isn’t the worst candidate you could think of.
— Brian Bolduc is a reporter for National Review Online.