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A Good Chance of Pryor Restraint

Thanks to Obamacare, Arkansas may get another Republican senator.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JAY COST
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With the Blanche Lincoln precedent to cheer them, Arkansas conservatives can find further grounds for hope in Tom Cotton, the GOP’s presumptive nominee to challenge Pryor. A native of Dardanelle, Arkansas, a town of about 5,000 people an hour northwest of Little Rock, Cotton attended Dardanelle High School, then Harvard College, then Harvard Law School. With a résumé like that, the world was his oyster, yet he volunteered for the Army in 2005. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, rising to the rank of captain. In 2012 he was elected representative for Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District, which comprises Madison County in the Ozarks, down the Oklahoma border to Texarkana, and along the Louisiana border to Monticello. 

In a state where, as of 2010, self identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans, the best way for a Republican to win is to peel off substantial support from the other party. Boozman defeated Lincoln not only by winning independents and Republicans, but also by capturing almost 20 percent of Democrats.

Cotton understands this challenge, which might explain why he sometimes sounds like a Democrat, although not the type you’ll see visiting the Obama White House. His rhetoric harks back to the populist tradition of rural Democrats like Burton K. Wheeler, Bryan, and even Old Hickory himself: a belief that the concentration of power in Washington, D.C., inevitably harms average people, especially those as far away as Arkansas. National Democrats abandoned this idea generations ago, but it is still a powerful concept among Southern and rural voters. In his speech announcing his candidacy, Cotton declared:

The politicians and the bureaucrats [in Washington] are playing a corrupt game. They’re taking your money and wasting it on big government programs that empower and enrich themselves while not serving you. They boss you around and they act like they’re your betters. They hand out special privileges and favors—to whom? Not hardworking Arkansans. To the politically connected and the crony capitalists who want to bend the power of government to their own private gain. 

And as for Obamacare, Cotton was blunt: “That corrupt law, with its tangled web of mandates and fines and penalties and taxes, symbolizes everything that is wrong with Washington today.”

Republicans have said a lot about Obamacare since its passage, but too few have connected it to the deep-rooted belief among many that the game of politics is rigged against them. This rhetoric has worked in Arkansas since Andrew Jackson issued his stinging veto of the Second Bank of the United States back in 1832. It used to be the stock-in-trade of the Democratic party, but Democrats have since embraced the very ideas they once rejected. Now, it is left to Southern Republicans like Cotton to make the case. 

A seasoned politician like Mark Pryor should have known better than to vote for Obamacare. Now he should be very worried. Though his party has dominated the state since Reconstruction, his Republican opponent is using the very principles that for so long were essential to the Democrats’ success. This brand of Republican populism won’t play everywhere, but in Arkansas it is a potent weapon for Cotton as he fights to replace Pryor in the Senate.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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