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A Rising Political Star in Arkansas

The state's Republicans are in tall cotton.

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By FRED BARNES
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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.

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