In Arkansas, Tea Party ‘hell no caucus’ member takes on entrenched Democratic senator
Senate candidate Tom Cotton has energy to burn, and why shouldn’t he? The rising Republican star is a fit former US Army officer who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Participating in a recent charity run in Little Rock, Arkansas, the 37-year-old Ivy grad and freshman congressman spotted incumbent Senator Mark Pryor, whose seat Cotton is seeking, on the sidelines.
“I ran right by him,” Cotton told a supporter at a campaign stop later that day less than a month before mid-term elections November 4.
The Senate race won’t be as easy. The rivals — an entrenched Democrat with a strong political pedigree and a man who could represent the Republican Party’s future — are locked in a closely watched battle, one that may well decide who controls the Senate for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Cotton has the momentum. He leads Pryor by four points in a RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls, and raised a campaign record $3.8 million in the third quarter.
A win would bring cheers from a Republican establishment thrilled with his pristine resume, while the GOP’s far-right Tea Party wing embraces his fiscal conservatism.
“Tom Cotton has broad appeal within our party and is certainly a unifying figure,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told AFP.
“He is sharp, principled and, as his distinguished military service shows, he’s a natural leader. Tom has a very bright future.”
– Harvard degrees, war tours –
At a campaign stop in Fordyce, Cotton noted a statewide rightward shift that would make the state’s congressional delegation entirely Republican should Pryor lose.
“Everywhere we go, Arkansans are ready for change,” Cotton said in an interview between chats with voters.
Equally at ease discussing wonky budget issues and foreign policy, the idealistic Cotton sounds like he hails from neither his Generation X nor the good-old-boy networks that often define southern political circles.
“This is not about personalities, it’s about policies and the impact they have,” Cotton said.
He rattles off his goals to two dozen supporters on a sun-bleached street corner: “Balance the budget, reduce our tax burdens on working families. Who will get people back to work at decent wages… who will stand firm with our military, and rebuild it and prepare to face the challenges like the Islamic State?”
Cotton is tall and lanky, comfortable in jeans and cowboy boots as he crisscrosses southern Arkansas on a bus tour.
He was raised on his family’s cattle farm in Yell county, a sixth generation Arkansan and country boy who friends say was bookish and disciplined from a young age.
He earned a spot at Harvard, emerging as a conservative contrarian to more liberal college kids. He advanced to Harvard Law School, where he was leaving a class when he learned of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
After a brief judge clerkship, he joined the US Army as an infantry officer.
When he declares that Obama exhibits weakness in confronting Islamic State militants — “I’ve been there on the frontlines fighting those groups,” Cotton says — voters tune in.
Supporter Mary Smith, 69, said Cotton “knows about the crises we’re in, and he’s not a yes man.”
In 2013, Politico labeled him the face of the “hell no caucus,” members who confound Republican leadership by refusing to compromise on issues like debt reduction or immigration.
He has the backing of key conservative organizations, including the Club for Growth, which seeks to dramatically shrink the size of government.
Fueling the Arkansas Senate race is virulent anti-Obama sentiment, and Cotton taps into that on the trail, pegging Pryor as consistently backing the unpopular president.
“Arkansas voters are smarter than that,” Pryor said. “They don’t fall for that old stuff.”
In Dardanelle, a town of 4,745, Cotton enjoys a rock-solid reputation.
His mother is a popular academic, while his father still announces Dardanelle High football games.
“You’ll see Tom out running, or picking up his mail like a normal, everyday guy when he’s in town,” said postal worker Leon Lane, 45.
Matt Graybill, who went to school with a Cotton cousin, said Tom was polite, smart, always looking to improve.
“Ever since high school it’s been ‘Tom Cotton this, Tom Cotton that,'” said Graybill. “He’s no fake, but I hope I’d be able to trust him.”
In 22 months in Congress, Cotton has sought to rein in government spending at almost any cost.
Angering constituents, Cotton voted against the Farm Bill, even though 36 percent of state GDP is tied to agriculture. He said it contained too much food-stamp funding.
His decision was at odds with Republican colleagues, but such are the votes that help shape his character, said state representative Ken Bragg.
“He votes on principle, even though it can be unpopular,” Bragg said.