Columns » Jay Barth

Cotton to CIA?

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Political junkies without a real election to overanalyze fill the void with "what if?" scenarios. With the State Fair underway, consider this column a helping of cotton candy for such readers.

The tensions between President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are now known in colorful detail. While the principals claim the conflict to be overstated, with the secretary of state providing us the unnecessary detail that he's yet to be gelded, most assume Tillerson's days to be numbered and CIA head Mike Pompeo as the leading replacement possibility. In recent weeks, with the Trump administration needing to determine ways to limit chaos with an easy confirmation process, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton has regularly been mentioned as a replacement to Pompeo at CIA.

This set of moves would have major implications for U.S. foreign policy. It would also have implications for Cotton's ultimate presidential ambitions. While a shift from the U.S. Senate to CIA is anything but typical (indeed, it's never occurred), it would further deepen the foreign policy section of Cotton's resume, would likely invigorate him intellectually and would formalize his connection to Trump, whose voters will be of outsized importance in election cycles to come. The downsides are that, most days, Cabinet officials are lower profile and that it would remove him from the debate over immigration reform, where Cotton has dedicated significant energies and is a topic more naturally invigorating for Trump voters.

The real fun for Arkansas political junkies comes back home, where this set of events would create a monstrous domino effect in Arkansas politics. That's because in the last legislative session election law was tweaked to make any appointment to the U.S. Senate by the governor a short stint, lasting until only the next general election. Governor Hutchinson would be able to appoint a caretaker to the spot — likely a low-frills business type like Sen. Kaneaster Hodges, who filled that role for just over a year after Sen. John McClellan's death in 1977 — but there would be a full-scale election in 2018 for the important post (assuming the vacancy occurred before early July). The appointee would not be able to run for a full term under Amendment 29 of the state Constitution.

Based on the party's sudden dominance in the state, Cotton's appointment would appear not to risk a safe GOP seat. It would also likely create a factionalized battle in a GOP primary, however. As in the recent Alabama race, two clear lanes would likely show themselves: one for the establishment wing and the other for populist wing. Hutchinson would have first dibs on the establishment lane and a decision by the former congressman to return to Washington might well reduce the populist lane to more fringe candidates akin to GOP gubernatorial nomination challenger Jan Morgan, unless the Steve Bannon faction of the national GOP engaged in pulling a higher profile Populist into the race. A pass on the race by Hutchinson would create a battle royale with Congressmen Steve Womack or French Hill as prospective establishment candidates, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge or State Sen. Jason Rapert vying for the populist lane, and the rare candidate like Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin trying to merge the two lanes. The race might even be tempting enough to lure Floridian Mike Huckabee, who remains popular in the state, back to make another Senate run (his third, although his 1996 effort was cut short).

While Democrats lack an obvious viable candidate, as shown by the party's challenge in fielding a gubernatorial candidate to this point, this race might mark a space for a moderate candidate — like former House Speaker Davy Carter — to run as an Independent with Democratic backing. (That strategy is not feasible in a governor's race because the Democrats must gain 3 percent of the vote for governor to maintain its line on the ballot.)

Of course, several of those potential GOP candidacies would open up other seats down below as the dominoes kept moving across the political landscape. The Hutchinson decision would be most consequential in this regard, creating a premature battle for governor between several of those listed above.

Because of its dramatic rise to dominance, the Republican talent pool remains shallow for higher profile races, creating unpredictability and fresh faces for Arkansas's electorate to consider. While Democrats have even more challenges with their relatively empty political bench, this would create new opportunities for inroads for the out party.

Again, all this vision of a dramatically reshaped 2018 election cycle in the state may be as fleeting as a Mega drop ride at the fair, but if it came to fruition it would create an election cycle unseen in the state since 1978, a year when nearly every race was wide open and many new names entered the political scene in Arkansas.

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