Why did Arkansas Democrat Mike Ross suddenly announce last week he is not running for reelection for the Fourth Congressional District seat he has held with ease for six terms?

Many linked his decision to his desire to run for governor in 2014, but insiders also recognize that next fall Ross was about to be confronted with the strongest challenger of his congressional career, in the person of Republican Tom Cotton of Yell County near Dardanelle.

That’s the same place that was made a household name in True Grit, as in “My name is Mattie Ross of near Dardanelle in Yell County.” But the story of Tom Cotton which is about to unfold in his congressional campaign is strictly nonfiction.

A rural Arkansas farm boy, Cotton made his way to Harvard and Harvard Law, where he graduated with distinction, with a stop to study at the Claremont Graduate University in between.

Cotton was walking out of a law school class when he learned terrorists had struck the World Trade Center. A world of legal wealth and prestige lay before him, but inside he sensed he soon would be going to war.

Those who know Cotton well are struck by his systematic demeanor, which leads him to lay plans before acting. He had obligations to fulfill before he could volunteer for Army service. He had committed to clerk for a federal appellate judge. Then he went into private practice to pay off his student loans. An Army friend wrote him from Iraq not to worry. “I’m afraid the war will still be on by the time you can get here.”

It was.

The Army recruiter examined his record and began explaining that Cotton, given his credentials, would qualify for a nice job with the rank of captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

Cotton politely interrupted. “I don’t think you understand. I’m here to volunteer for the infantry.”

After Ranger school, he arrived in Iraq a second lieutenant in the 101st Airborne, where he led soldiers in combat in southern Baghdad. Then he spent a year leading an Old Guard platoon burying soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. (“There is no greater responsibility than what we did for those families who never again will see their loved ones,” he says.)

Then he volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan in Taliban-infested Laghman Province just north of the Tora Bora mountains.

In late 2009, as he prepared to leave the Army, there was talk of a draft for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Arkansas. The effort was led by an Arkansas legislator named Michael Lamoureux who became a close friend of Cotton competing against him as they played for rival high school basketball teams. (They have remained close since; Lamoureux boasts that he is the only person who ever blocked the lanky Cotton from achieving a goal.)

The draft was reported in a leading Arkansas political blog, which prompted an online comment from Army sergeant Stephen Anthony: “I have had the great pleasure of working for a year [in Iraq] with Thomas Cotton. He is .  .  . one of the rare officers who actually showed a genuine concern for his Soldiers. .  .  . If he were to devote even an ounce of time and energy in a Senate seat as he did as my Platoon Leader, the Republican Party would be a far better place for it.”

Ever the practical planner, Cotton decided against a rush into the Senate campaign, electing instead to become a management consultant with McKinsey & Company.

But his old pal Lamoureux, now a state senator, was determined to get Cotton into a race for public office. In congressional redistricting following the 2010 Census, Yell County was moved into the Fourth Congressional District, and while Ross had won reelection with ease since defeating a Republican incumbent in 2000, those new district lines and the rapidly rising post-Obama fortunes of the GOP in Arkansas were sufficient to convince Cotton to challenge Ross.

The geographically vast district spreads across the southern half of the state, but redistricting removed some Democratic strongholds along the southern tip of the Mississippi and added territory from the state’s more Republican northwest. The district includes such spots as Hot Springs, Pine Bluff, El Dorado, and the border town of Texarkana.

In the presidential race John McCain carried even the old district with 58 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads began targeting Ross with critical television advertising. Cotton believed this was a race he could win—and that was before Ross bailed.

The Fourth District is not the only thing about Arkansas politics that has changed. In 2008, though McCain was about to sweep to victory in the state, Arkansas Republicans failed to field an opponent against a single Democrat up for reelection in the Senate or the House.

Last November changed all that. The GOP captured a Senate seat and two House seats and made record gains down-ballot. Today Democrats hold only Ross’s district in the House, and in the Senate, Mark Pryor’s seat looks vulnerable in 2014.

As soon as Ross announced he would not run again, a host of Democrats began jockeying for the nomination. Cotton supporters are confident he can secure the GOP nomination. Beth Anne Rankin, a former Miss Arkansas and Huckabee administration appointee, is another potential candidate, but she managed to get only 40 percent of the vote against Ross last year.

The list of well-known conservatives preparing to support Cotton reads like a Who’s Who of the movement. His former professors at Claremont are as much in awe at the prospects of Cotton in Congress as his old sergeant in Iraq. “You have to remember that this young man interrupted a fast-track life to study the Federalist Papers,” explains Charles Kesler, now editor of the Claremont Review of Books. “And that was before he interrupted his life to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Cotton, meanwhile, is as comfortable talking about domestic policy and the need to restrict the growth of government as he is in assessing American strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is an ease about his manner that masks his intellectual prowess and the courage that marked his service.

Arkansas novelist Charles Portis managed to get a lot of life out of his classic tale of True Grit. But as Tom Cotton begins his campaign for Congress, many are left with a sense that in the years ahead the country could hear a lot more about another extraordinary figure from Yell County near Dardanelle.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest.

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