Tom Cotton is a first-time candidate for the House in Arkansas. What passes for campaign headquarters is his small house in Dardanelle, his hometown, population 4,720. His campaign manager, Doug Coutts, is an old Army friend with an MBA but no background in politics. Coutts often subs as Cotton’s driver and one-man entourage. His campaign team consists of five people, two of them unpaid volunteers. There’s no press secretary. He’s his own chief strategist and fundraiser. He says he discovered shortly after announcing his candidacy in July 2011 that “the most effective pitchman was me.”
Cotton, 35, is lanky (6-foot-5), mild-mannered, and doesn’t have a dynamic stump speech. He announced his candidacy by replying “yes” when an AP reporter asked if he planned to run. Until airing TV ads in the GOP primary this spring, he was largely unknown in a district whose most famous offspring, besides Bill Clinton, are country singers Glen Campbell and the late Johnny Cash. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has a ranch in the district. Cotton is running, he says, because “it’s a winnable district, and it’s a crucial time for the country.”
His modest and easygoing style is deceptive. He’s raised about $2 million, more than enough to pay for TV spots in the district’s five media markets, plus radio. The National Republican Congressional Committee has given him “vanguard” status. This means he’s likely to win in a breeze and can afford to help other Republican challengers. He’s already donated $75,000 to fellow Republican candidates, including to the better-known Mia Love in Utah.
If his lack of political experience is a drawback, you’d never know it. He’s an impressive candidate, knowledgeable on issues, seems bound to attract attention in Washington, and is blessed with bright prospects for gaining still higher office. John Goodson, a trial lawyer and longtime Democratic powerhouse in Texarkana, says Cotton is “going to be our congressman, then our senator, then our president.”
Goodson is a convert. Before he met Cotton, he’d never raised money for a Republican. He’s held two fund-raisers for Cotton. Last week, he took Cotton, predawn, to greet workers at the gate of the Cooper Tire plant, the biggest employer in town. “The Democratic party has moved away from a lot of these people,” Goodson says. Nearly all are members of the Steelworkers union. But as they shook hands, some asked if Cotton is a Republican. They reacted favorably when he said yes.
It was Cotton’s résumé that hooked Goodson. The résumé is merely the story of Cotton’s life. He went to Dardanelle High (his father is public address announcer at the school’s football games). When he learned he’d done well on his college boards, he decided to apply to top colleges and was accepted at Harvard and later at Harvard Law School.
Then came 9/11. He knew instantly he wanted to join the Army to fight America’s enemies. He was just beginning his final year of law school. He finished, spent two years as a lawyer to pay off his college loans, and in 2004 volunteered. The recruiting officer suggested he become a JAG officer, a military lawyer serving far from the combat zone. Cotton wasn’t interested. He signed up for OCS and requested the infantry.
As a second lieutenant, he took advanced infantry training, went through paratrooper and Ranger school, and was sent to Iraq as platoon leader in the 101st Airborne. From Iraq in 2006, he wrote a letter to the New York Times condemning the paper for disclosing an anti-terrorist financing program. The Times spiked his letter, but it became an Internet sensation, first on Power Line.
Post-Iraq, Cotton served in the Old Guard at Fort Myer outside Washington before volunteering in 2008 for a tour in Afghanistan with a provincial reconstruction team. His duties were half-political, half-military. He worked on construction projects, advised local Afghan governing councils, and provided security. After his five-year Army stint, he joined McKinsey & Company for a year, then returned home.
Given his extraordinary record, several friends in the legislature urged Cotton to run against Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln in 2010. He declined. “It didn’t seem like the right time at all,” he says. It was, however, for Republican John Boozman, who defeated Lincoln in a landslide.
But a House race this year interested Cotton. The incumbent, Democrat Mike Ross, had bucked the GOP tide in Arkansas in 2010, defeating Republican Beth Anne Rankin, 58-40. But the parties were flipping in Arkansas. Republicans were surging, Democrats in rapid decline with the Clintons gone. Word spread that Cotton would run days before Ross announced his retirement, perhaps spurring Ross’s decision.
Based on his personal story alone—rural background, Harvard, combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan—Cotton is an appealing candidate. In Arkansas, “the Army is a big thing,” Goodson says. But there’s more to Cotton and his candidacy than that.
Politics was rarely discussed as he grew up on the family cattle ranch. But when he was 15, Clinton, Arkansas’s governor, won the presidency. And Cotton began to follow the news. Rather than fall under Clinton’s spell, he embraced conservative views.
Harvard, counterintuitively, deepened his conservatism. “I realized there was a different breed of Democrat there,” he says. He joined the Harvard Republican Club. As a government major, he studied under Harvey Mansfield and Peter Berkowitz, both conservatives. He wrote his thesis on the Federalist Papers.
Between college and law school, Cotton spent a year at Claremont Graduate University and was strongly influenced by conservative scholar Charles Kesler, who taught American political thought. At Claremont, he gained “the ability to connect high principles to low politics,” he says. “If your thinking is grounded in timeless things, you don’t have to worry about shifting with the political winds.”
As you might guess, Cotton stresses conservative ideas in talking to voters, notably the need to curb the size and power of Washington. Ideas, he says, are the key to the Republican rise in Arkansas. Democrats won by playing up personality, geography, and political connections. “They have never had to run contests of ideas,” Cotton says. “I don’t think Democratic candidates in Arkansas have adjusted to that new reality.”
Cotton talks about conservative ideas and little else. His favorite Republicans in Congress are the most idea-oriented conservatives: Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio.
Assuming Cotton is elected on November 6, he’ll face a big decision
on whether to run for the Senate in 2014. Democrat Mark Pryor is vulnerable, all the more because the “D” by his name is fast becoming a stigma. Ex-governor Mike Huckabee has moved to Florida. The popular Republican congressman from northwest Arkansas, Steve Womack, is from the same hometown, Rogers, as Senator Boozman, which would be a problem.
So will Cotton try to move up to the Senate? Two years is a lifetime in politics. If Romney wins, Cotton has the prospect of serving in a House that will take the lead in reversing the liberal policies of President Obama. That would provide Cotton with plenty to keep him busy. On the other hand, he’s never been a guy to shy away from a challenge.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.