It was 85 degrees and humid at the Fourth of July picnic in Corning, just south of the Missouri border. Tom Cotton stood by the stage in Corning's Wynn Park, waiting his turn to give a short speech. Dressed in khakis and a crisp, light blue button-up, sleeves rolled up slightly, Cotton bounced gently on his heels, taking a moment to himself before the hobnobbing to come.
Corning's population is a little more than 3,000, but on the Fourth it's probably five times that, as people from all over the county and beyond pour in for the festivities: a parade, carnival rides, country music, $2 hot dogs, a beauty pageant, fireworks. Oh, and politics. In election years, candidates from both parties, for everything from governor to dogcatcher, show up to make their pitch and glad-hand.
This is the day-to-day grind of a politician on the trail, "gripping and grinning" as the campaign consultants say. In a small, rural state like Arkansas, as the prevailing wisdom goes, this kind of retail politics still matters. The Corning picnic is part of the circuit, which includes the Coon Supper in Gillett, the Oyster Supper in Slovak, the Chicken Fry in Mount Nebo and the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival. (Cotton skipped this last one to attend a closed-door seminar with numerous billionaire donors and GOP elites in California, hosted by the Koch brothers. According to a report in The Nation, the Kochs served "oven roasted Angus natural filet mignon served in a fresh green peppercorn sauce," which sounds a little better than pink tomatoes, but Cotton's political opponents have attacked his choice as out of touch with Arkansas.)
Cotton, 37, is running for Senate, challenging incumbent Mark Pryor, and on paper he should be winning handily. He's running in an off-year election with an electorate likely favoring Republicans, in a state trending dead red. President Obama's approval ratings in Arkansas are in the low 30s. Pryor is the last Democrat in the state's congressional delegation; former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was trounced in 2010 by more than 20 points. And then there's Cotton's resume: Harvard undergrad, Harvard law, Army Ranger who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last year, the national media had declared Pryor the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate, a "dead man walking." Instead, with the election just four months away, the polls seem to indicate a tight race. The early prognosticators may have underestimated the Pryor brand in Arkansas, but with a pickup for Republicans now in some doubt, grumblings have emerged about Cotton himself, who had been considered a rising political superstar in the Republican ranks. "What's wrong with Tom Cotton?" asked a recent U.S. News & World Report article; a writer at The American Conservative followed up by blogging that the Cotton campaign was "flailing."
The assembled crowd in Corning waved political novelty fans ("I'm a FAN of Pryor") to keep cool. "Pryor's done Arkansas really good for a lot of years," one Pryor fan, Jerry Ladd of Corning, told me. "I don't think Obama's done good this year, or the last four years." But that wouldn't stop Ladd, who works for the Highway and Transportation Department, from voting for Pryor, he said. "He's helped Social Security, trying to keep it where it is. If you're the workingman and woman out there, when you get in your late 50s and 60s, your old body's not the same as it was. So you need help. That's why I really like Pryor. He's a family politician who has helped the state of Arkansas. I'll vote for Democrat or Republican — anybody that'll help the state of Arkansas and help me."
Paragould truck driver Michael Sanders said he was planning to support Cotton. "We definitely need a freaking change," he said. "From Biblical to what's actually right. What's ruining this country is all the freebie stuff. I'm a taxpayer, I still work and I'm probably going to have to work until I die. I feel like Mark Pryor's sold us out, supporting everything Obama goes for."
Obama, Obama, Obama. Republicans running for office in Arkansas this year are hoping that's the magic word. In particular, many Republican strategists believe that the president's signature health care law, bludgeoned to great success in Arkansas in the 2010 and 2012 elections cycles, is a political gift that will keep on giving. "Most definitely, 100 percent, it will work in 2014," GOP strategist Bill Vickery recently told Talk Business. "There are only three things for certain in life: death, taxes and the unpopularity of Obamacare in the South."
At his turn on stage in Corning, even Tim Griffin, the outgoing congressman running for lieutenant governor, vowed to continue to fight Obamacare, despite running for a state office that has nothing at all to do with the national health care law (an office so light on duties that when previous Lt. Gov. Mark Darr resigned in disgrace early this year, the state didn't bother to fill the vacancy). "My opponent [John Burkhalter] is the preferred candidate of President Obama," Griffin told the crowd with a straight face.
When Cotton's name was called, he bounded up the steps. While others walked to the middle of the stage to deliver their spiel, Cotton grabbed the microphone and took off at a trot to the front, fast enough that it appeared he might run off the edge. He held the mic close and spoke loudly, with the hard, thudding consonants of a cheerleader (or a drill sergeant).
You could hardly blame Cotton for being a little overeager. The candidate has been taking heat from the chattering classes over his skills as a retail politician. He's too cold, too stiff, too academic, too robotic, the story goes. As University of Arkansas professor and pollster Janine Parry told U.S. News & World Report, "Cotton has a reputation, bless his heart, for being a bit of a cold fish." Cotton himself joked to Politico, "I'm warm, dammit."
After his speech, Cotton began to make the rounds. He walks in big, forceful strides and speaks in a flat, facts-and-figures cadence. At 6-foot-5, he stands a head above the crowd. He's a political cartoonist's dream: angular and gangly, big ears, crew cut, a neck that seems two sizes too tall.
Cotton has an intensely formal manner, and that will probably never change, but he has steadily improved at the awkward business of making small talk with strangers. Both in Corning and other stops where I've watched him on the trail, he seemed confident and at ease in individual conversations with voters. He speaks directly, he's a patient listener and is quick to laugh.
A Cotton campaign worker told me that the criticism is the best thing that could have happened to the candidate, an extremely driven man used to willing his way to success. Cotton was a little stung by the press labeling him a subpar retail politician; now he was bound and determined to prove them wrong.
And once Cotton fixates on a goal, he is, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with. He is methodical, hyper-focused and single-minded. A meticulous perfectionist and obsessive worker. Always has been. Surely his experience in the Army shaped him, but old friends say he already had a demeanor well suited to the military. If Bill Clinton — a politician who made a big impression on Cotton when he was growing up — was born with charm, Cotton was born with discipline.
Of course, while many things in life can be won by outworking the other guy, likability isn't one of them. Cotton can be stiff in public appearances and in front of the camera. He always hits his talking points, but he's still working on mastering the skill that has made more than a few Arkansas politicians famous: making all those talking points sound like aw-shucks empathy.
"He's a little more professorial," a former teacher of Cotton's who saw him recently at a fundraiser told me. "I don't see Tom as ever being the backslapping politician at the chicken fry."
One of the people Cotton met in Corning was Betty Foster, a retired resident of Knobel, sitting in a lawn chair near the stage. (Actually, he came to shake her hand twice — "He forgot the first one," she said. "Most of them have better memories than that.") Foster said that Cotton was polite and friendly, but she wasn't planning on voting for him. "He scares me," she said. "He's a little bit radical. There's too many people in this country who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They have got to be protected."
For all the talk of personality, it's Cotton's votes — and the bombardment of advertising over the last few months pointing them out — that seemed to be influencing the voters in Corning still skeptical of the challenger. Many Democratic operatives believe that Pryor got a lifeline drawing an opponent with Cotton's record.
Cotton voted against funding for disaster relief, against the farm bill and against bills to make student loans more affordable. He voted for a bill that would have eventually raised the retirement age for Medicare and Social Security and moved toward "voucherizing" Medicare. He was in the middle of the government shutdown fight and voted against the omnibus appropriations bill that kept the government running this year and included funding for Arkansas Children's Hospital and countless other local interests. The list goes on.
Team Cotton has arguments about why he did so, but the broad picture is hard to dispute: Cotton is an ideological purist on the far right end of the American political spectrum. He believes in an aggressive reimagining of the role of government and the social safety net in modern American life, and is more than willing to stand by his principles, even at the cost of federal dollars flowing into Arkansas. The Pryor campaign has been attempting to paint him as an extremist and "reckless," and his voting record gives them plenty of material.
Will Cotton's politics and personal style give him trouble in a state with a tradition of economic populism, folksy retail politics and an independent political streak? Or does it even matter? Perhaps Arkansas is destined for Republican rule no matter whose name is next to the R. Perhaps an all-Obamacare-all-the-time political message can't lose. Certainly, that's why many thought Pryor was toast to begin with.
We'll have our answers come November. Major implications for both Arkansas and the national political picture hang in the balance, as voters try to decide just what to make of Thomas B. Cotton.
When Cotton first emerged on the political scene in 2012, the conservative breitbart.com gushed that he was "one of the best candidates running for Congress this election cycle — and possibly ever." Unflagging neoconservative and GOP kingmaker Bill Kristol was also a big fan and his magazine, The Weekly Standard, has run dozens of fawning items on Cotton ("best read while listening to John Philip Sousa and cooling an apple pie" as Slate's Dave Weigel put it). A recent profile in National Review reported that Cotton had both read all of Thucydides and volunteered for the infantry, concluding that he "seems to have it all." Even the National Journal, ostensibly sober and above the fray, called him "The Immaculate Candidate."
(Cotton declined to be interviewed for this article; his Congressional office has responded to queries from the Times only once, when asked what Cotton's favorite song was for a sidebar in the Times' Music Issue. Answer: "Battle Hymn of the Republic.")
Cotton is the great hope for a splintered Republican party in search of a savior. He has both Tea Party cred and approval from the establishment, plus big-money backing from powerful right-wing advocacy groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action. He is a hard-liner who appeals to both the anti-tax and the war hawk wings of the party. Perhaps most of all, there is that sparkling resume, a life story perfect for a political bio. Even the name: Tom Cotton. If a Hollywood movie gave that name to a fictional all-American Southern politician, it would almost be too on the nose.
Cotton grew up on a cattle farm just outside of Dardanelle in Yell County, son of Len, who worked for the state Department of Health, and Avis, a middle school principal.
Friends remember Cotton as unusually driven and methodically focused, even as a boy. He was a thoughtful kid who followed the rules, and he had the same serious bearing that he has today — he's often remembered as mature and "wise beyond his years" by both peers and adults who knew him growing up.
"He was a planner," said Marcia Lawrence, principal at Dardanelle High School, who taught Cotton AP English. "That was his makeup. He was gonna work that plan and do what it took to get that plan into fruition."
"He always seemed to have it together from day one," said Greg Judkins, a friend who grew up with Cotton in Dardanelle. "Always organized, no wasted effort. There was a group of us who would want to go party and hang out and be a little more rambunctious. He always just had things to do. There was always something on his mind, something big. He had a bigger picture. Just like you see today, he was motivated. Pretty much everything he did was efficient. He always had a plan. When he decided he wanted to go to Harvard, he made up a plan on how to do it."
In addition to his schoolwork, Cotton's big passion was basketball, and he played as a lanky center for the Dardanelle High School Sand Lizards. Cotton wasn't the best athlete, an old AAU coach remembered, "but he was intuitive as far as being able to be in the right position. He understood the angles. Very fundamental. He knew where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do."
Cotton's parents were Democrats and Clinton supporters when he was growing up, but by high school, Cotton considered himself a Republican, according to friends. When he arrived at Harvard's very liberal campus, his conservative perspective only hardened. He delighted in being an iconoclast. Cotton devoted his time at Harvard to "cultivating contrarianism," as he wrote in his column at the Harvard Crimson.
"He was never shy about it," said Adam Kovacevich, a close college friend of Cotton's now working for Google in Washington, D.C., who considers himself a moderate Democrat (after Harvard, he did a stint as then Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's press secretary). "He always kind of knew himself, knew who he was. I certainly don't agree with Tom on all the issues, but we were both very interested in the ideas behind politics." Their rap sessions had a philosophical bent, and Cotton was as interested in Plato and Aristotle as he was in the news of the day.
Cotton wrote his senior thesis on the Federalist papers. "He thought a lot about what it means to be an American, what are the values that define American democracy," Kovacevich said.
Cotton also seemed to romanticize certain grand ideas that may have seemed antiquated to his classmates. In his columns, he wrote often of virtue, honor, glory, patriotism. "We dislike honor in this most democratic age," Cotton lamented in one. Another: "How little we hear of self-discipline in our indulgent and permissive society."
The summer after his freshman year, he re-read Jane Austen's novels, wanting to reflect on what they had to say about virtue and an ethical life. Some friends told him he seemed like he would be more comfortable in another century.
As a college columnist, Cotton was an oddball conservative intellectual. Undergrad scribblings from 20 years ago, of course, reveal no secret clues as to what sort of senator Cotton might make. They nonetheless make for interesting reading, in part because College Cotton was more engaging and recognizably human than the scripted Candidate Cotton is allowed to be. He could occasionally be prudish and hectoring, but his style — if stuffy and overstuffed — was endearing. It's actually too bad that we don't get more of Cotton the columnist on the campaign trail (imagine William F. Buckley in fatigues), rather than the robo-candidate repeating ready-made talking points.
"No, I could not have sought or expected popularity and its absence concerns me not at all," Cotton wrote. "This is the reason I have written polemical philippics: I have sought to counteract rampant prejudices. ... It was my intent to challenge with my writings; and by challenging, I meant to improve, to jolt slumbering minds into wakefulness." Harrumph! It's a long way from backslapping at barbecues.
Cotton eventually went on to Harvard Law, followed by a stint clerking for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Houston and gigs at private law firms in Washington, D.C. On his way to a lucrative career as an attorney, Cotton decided instead to take a sharp turn, enlisting in the U.S. Army. Someone with Cotton's background would typically have gone into the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, but Cotton wanted to be a soldier on the ground, and he volunteered for the infantry.
Friends who spoke to him at the time were surprised by his decision to enlist but described him as resolute and assured in his decision. (Cotton has said that the events of Sept. 11, when he was in his last year of law school, originally inspired him to join, but he first needed to pay off his student loans.) Cotton, whose father had volunteered to go to Vietnam, had always held soldiers in high esteem. His hero was Churchill, "the greatest man of our century," in Cotton's estimation. A Crimson column Cotton penned on Churchill might help in understanding his thinking: "Had Churchill not faced down death as a young man, would he have had the courage to face down Hitler in 1940?" In another, he wrote, "Americans once venerated their generals; today we venerate our sports heroes. This development is both healthy and sad; healthy because it means we do not suffer the depredations of war, but sad because it deprives of us displays of great virtue."
Cotton completed paratrooper and Ranger training and served as a platoon leader for the 101st Airborne in southern Baghdad in 2006, then later volunteered for a second combat tour, serving as captain on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Laghman Province in Afghanistan.
Andrew Wilson, who served as a fellow captain with Cotton in Afghanistan, described him as "the moral compass of the PRT. I was probably always more of an emotional leader. Tom wasn't really that. He was more steadfast, he had a process. He's a very straightforward guy. He follows the rules, always plays by the rules."
After five years of active duty, Cotton took a job at the Washington, D.C., office of high-powered consulting firm McKinsey & Co. In 2011, he decided to run for Congress back in Arkansas, taking residency at a family home in Dardanelle. By that time, he had been gone for more than 15 years and was a relative unknown on the political scene. During the primary, he received a FedEx envelope from the Club for Growth, Politico reported: "Tucked inside that envelope and several to come were $300,000 in checks from Club members, enough to help lift the 35-year-old former Army captain from obscurity — and 47 percentage points down in his first internal poll — to the fourth floor of the Cannon House Office Building."
Thus Cotton emerged as a darling of the right: a well-funded, articulate, diehard conservative. Almost immediately, his fans began to dream of bigger things, including Pryor's Senate seat. "He's bound to attract attention in Washington, and ... blessed with bright prospects for gaining still higher office," wrote Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard. Cotton was thinking big too — he started polling a possible Senate race in February, a month after he was sworn in to the House.
"Some people say I'm a 'young man in a hurry,' " Cotton told National Review last May. "They're right."
The stories and myths of Arkansas politics are dominated by the outsized personalities of charming good ol' boys like Dale Bumpers, Mike Huckabee, Mike Beebe and Mark Pryor's father, David, the popular former governor, congressman and senator (whose name still counts for something; a Pryor campaign worker told me that every time they go out on the trail, voters say things like "say hi to your daddy for me" or "make sure and tell your dad, thanks for everything"). Finally, of course, there was Bill Clinton, whose shadow hangs over any Arkansas politician on the rise.
Cotton's first column at the Crimson was about meeting Clinton with his family as a boy: "His eyes twinkled that twinkle that is now so familiar to all of us. He mouthed inaudible thanks, and then moved on to the next face. Forty-five seconds, at most. And he absolutely meant it all, the way young couples mean it when they say, 'I love you.'...Bill Clinton is the most successful campaigner of our time because he is the most sincere campaigner of our time."
Cotton has steadily improved as a campaigner, but no one will confuse him with Clinton. "It's almost like the minute he realizes he's smiling, he puts on a serious face again," said Julie Baldridge, who has been close to Cotton since he spent a summer working for her at age 19 in the Little Rock office of then-U.S. Congressman Ray Thornton, a Democrat. "He's simply a formal, serious person. ... It's hard for him not be himself." One old friend compared him to the characters on "The Big Bang Theory," the hit show about loveable but socially awkward brainiacs.
"I think the characterizations people try to make are amusing, pretty far off base," said Michael Lamoureux, a Republican state senator from Russellville who has known Cotton since they were basketball rivals as boys. "It seems like the intent is to describe him as some sort of robot. You know, he's a normal guy that happens to have a better resume than the average guy, but he's a human. I see some of the attacks and I think, maybe he's wrong on policy, but he's not from another — he's not a robot or something."
Politics is a funny business. Talk to those who really know Cotton and you'll hear about his dry sense of humor and what a loyal and generous friend he is. But that's a different matter altogether than translating the perfect political bio into a human being that Arkansans can relate to. Al Gore was reportedly charming once you really got to know him, but the caricatures in political narratives have a way of hardening. "He does have a great deal of empathy," one friend of Cotton's said. "It's just it's hard to see it."
Of course, there are other skills in a politician's toolbox beyond charm. Keeping to the same talking points over and over isn't easy, and it's probably no surprise that Cotton is extremely good at sticking to the script, making him unlikely to make an unforced error.
"He's disciplined in that regard," said Clint Reed, a Little Rock GOP strategist. "Not everybody has that skillset. As a guy who does politics for a living, man, I'd take candidates like that every day of the week."
One way of looking at the campaign, then, is that Cotton is a robot. Another way of looking at it (a frightening prospect if you don't like his politics) is that Tom Cotton is a political machine.
The Cotton campaign's big bet is that all he needs to do is perseverate on "Obama" and "Obamacare." Cotton's standard OPM rate — "Obama" per minute — is typically around 4 or 5, but can be as high as 10 when he really gets going. Ask him about student loans and he'll talk about repealing Obamacare. In an interview with the right-wing blog Hot Air, he was asked about America's sluggish economic recovery and responded with a sentence about jobs and a paragraph about Obamacare.
There is zero doubt that Obama, and Obamacare, are a net negative for Pryor. Antipathy for the president runs deep in Arkansas, ranging from honest, coherent critiques to the more unhinged variety. (A couple of voters at a campaign event in Pangburn told me they "wouldn't be surprised if we don't have another four years of Obama." When I noted that his term would be up, they responded, "All he's gotta do is declare war somewhere, and then we won't change presidents; think about that.")
Still, there is the risk that voters may start to tune out such a narrow message (not to mention the fact that nearly 200,000 Arkansans have gained coverage via the state's "private option" version of Medicaid expansion; Cotton has dodged taking a position on the private option, but it's funded by Obamacare, the law that Cotton is so eager to repeal). It's worth noting that Republican Asa Hutchinson, running for governor, has been offering a more diversified — and locally focused — campaign portfolio, and is doing a bit better in the polls.
Meanwhile, Pryor will continue to hammer Cotton on his votes. When Cotton voted against the farm bill, political analyst Charlie Cook wrote, "My hunch is that there is a lot of head-scratching over that vote among farmers and folks in rural and small-town Arkansas. ... my guess is, his vote on the farm bill will be a cudgel that Pryor will swing at him from now to November, providing an opening that the incumbent needed and the challenger could ill-afford to give. If Cotton doesn't regret the vote already, he soon will."
Cotton and his campaign were defiant — Cotton was going to stand by his beliefs even if doing so was politically risky. His backers believe that voters will appreciate Cotton's actions as principled even if they are unpopular.
The Pryor campaign has a different take, pointing out that Cotton's controversial votes — often as the lone member of the Arkansas delegation — track neatly with the scorecards put out by advocacy groups like the Club for Growth. (Cotton has been one of the top recipients of campaign donations from the Club over the last two election cycles, totaling around $500,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Club has also spent more than $700,000 in independent expenditures attacking Pryor.)
"The only guiding principle that explains all Congressman Cotton's votes against Arkansans is his principled interest in seeing himself get ahead," said Pryor deputy campaign manager Erik Dorey. "The Club for Growth is perfectly illustrative of exactly how loyal Congressman Cotton is to these out-of-state special interests and the billionaires backing his campaign, and has been from the very beginning of his political ambitions. ... There is a guiding principle when someone will ride the special interest dollars into Congress, then take an oath of office and immediately position himself to ride those same out-of-state backers into the next higher office, and that guiding principle is Tom Cotton looking out for Tom Cotton."
Of course, all politicians are seeking career advancement. What stands out about Cotton is the intensity of his ideological purity. Rather than running on personality or local issues, Cotton has said he wants to "run contests of ideas." Cotton is unbending in his commitment to those ideas — Tea Party economics and aggressively hawkish foreign policy — no matter the consequences and regardless of the parochial interests of Arkansas. Cotton has been a stickler for rules his entire life — it makes sense that he's rigid on first principles. Policy is messy; Cotton argues in black and white.
In the end, it doesn't much matter what Cotton's precise motivation was for voting the way that he did. We don't judge politicians on intentions. We shall know them by their works.
Cotton believes so fervently that the federal government should no longer be involved in subsidizing student loans (despite the fact that he took Stafford loans at Harvard) that he voted against bills that would have lightened the burden of loan repayment for more than 200,000 Arkansans. He is such a hard-liner on the debt that he was willing to drive right off the fiscal cliff into national default, a potential economic catastrophe that he called "short-term market corrections," saying, "I'd like to take the medicine now."
Voting against the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Bill, Cotton said, "I don't think Arkansas needs to bail out the Northeast." He said that it was larded up with pet projects, but he also voted against a Sandy bill that included only funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Cotton complained that it wasn't offset with corresponding spending cuts).
On foreign policy, Cotton is an unreconstructed neoconservative. "George Bush did largely have it right," he said.
Cotton co-sponsored a bill that would likely ban certain forms of birth control, such as IUDs and the morning-after pill. He voted against the Violence Against Women Act and against the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Around half a million Arkansans get food stamps, but Cotton advocates for massive cuts to the program, claiming that "we've all been in a situation where we stand in the grocery line at Walmart" and see someone using a food stamp card with "steak in their basket, and they have a brand new iPhone, and they have a brand new SUV."
Cotton voted for the Paul Ryan budget, which would cut benefits for seniors, including preventative care, and eventually transition Medicare into a voucher-like system; he was also the only member of the Arkansas congressional delegation to vote for the Republican Study Committee Budget, which would eventually raise the eligibility age for both Social Security and Medicare to 70. Both budgets would give tax cuts to the wealthy and cut trillions of dollars in programs serving low-income Americans.
Cotton seems to be a true believer on all of this. He is resolute and uncompromising. He's not pretending to be someone he's not. It will be up to Arkansans to decide whether they like what they see.