Tom Cotton snagged Arkansas’ last Democratic House district for the Republicans, claiming the seat of the retiring Democratic Rep. Mike Ross. The district’s voters have historically sent Democrats to Congress, and Cotton’s victory was further evidence of the state’s rightward shift. National Republicans have dubbed him a rising star in the party.
A sixth-generation Arkansan, Cotton was born in Russellville and grew up on his family’s cattle farm in Dardanelle. After graduating form high school, he studied government as an undergraduate at Harvard and went on to earn a degree from its law school in 2002. He then worked as a judicial clerk for Judge Jerry Erwin Smith of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and later as a lawyer at two firms: Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Cooper & Kirk.
Cotton left his law practice and enlisted in the Army in December 2004, turning down suggestions to join the Judge Advocate General Corps. He was deployed to Baghdad in May 2006 as a platoon leader for the 101st Airborne Division, leading daily patrols through the city. In March 2007, he joined the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, the regiment that guards the Tomb of the Unknowns. He went to Afghanistan in 2008 as an operations officer for a provincial reconstruction team. In an interview with National Journal, he called his time in the military a “great training ground for politics” because it taught him professionalism.
During his military career, he gained some notoriety among conservative bloggers for a letter he wrote to The New York Times editors in 2006. After the paper published an article about the George W. Bush administration’s program to trace financial transactions of people suspected of ties to terrorist organizations, Cotton wrote, “Next time I hear that familiar explosion—or next time I feel it—I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.”
When Cotton finished his military service, he considered running against Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas’ 2010 race, but decided against it. Instead, he went to work in Washington as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co.
When Ross announced in June 2011 that he would not seek reelection, the open seat was viewed as a likely Republican pick-up. Cotton’s main competition in the May primary was Beth Anne Rankin, a former aide to Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and an early favorite because she had challenged Ross in 2010. But Cotton quickly caught the attention of national groups, earning endorsements from the antitax Club for Growth and the National Republican Congressional Committee as well as many of his state’s major newspapers and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He won the GOP contest with 57 percent of the vote to Rankin’s 37 percent. In the fall, Cotton faced Democratic state Sen. Gene Jeffress. He vastly out-fundraised Jeffress en route to his general-election victory.