Lawmakers desperate to win their next election usually cast votes with the utmost political sensitivity. And then there's Tom Cotton.
The freshman Republican congressman voted against the farm bill Wednesday despite his home state of Arkansas's heavy agrarian bent, because he said the legislation would spend too much on food stamps. He was the only one of the state's four-member, all-GOP House delegation to do so (the state's Republican senator, John Boozman, is also expected to back the legislation). To the casual observer, it's a strange vote for a man engaged in a tough race to unseat Democrat Mark Pryor in this year's Senate race, an incumbent who, of course, will vote for the bill.
But for Cotton, his opposition was part of a broader pattern. He's made one politically risky decision after another, votes that seem at odds with a candidate trying to knock off a once-popular incumbent.
Since taking office last year, Cotton has voted against the Violence Against Women Act, opposed lowering student-loan rates, and backed a budget that would tinker with Medicare and Social Security. Most visibly, he has been one of the House's most outspoken supporters of using the U.S. military in Syria, writing an op-ed in support of action in The Washington Post. In some cases, like the farm bill, he was out on a limb, without the support of his fellow Arkansas Republicans.
A typical politician, it's fair to say, wouldn't do those sorts of things ahead of a competitive general election. Every vote they take is carefully calibrated to give them the best possible opportunity to win their race.
Take Pryor. He voted against expanding gun-sale background checks and continues to oppose gay marriage. Both put him at odds with his party and figure to help him, however marginally, in the fall.
And while Republicans say they're the kind of votes that have helped make Cotton a rising star in the party, they also undoubtedly provide an opening to Democrats, who want to paint the congressman as reckless and out of the mainstream.
"In voting against the farm bill, Congressman Cotton once again sided with his special-interest allies, the same Washington groups spending millions on his campaign that urged him to oppose the farm bill," Pryor said in a statement. "It's reckless and irresponsible for Congressman Cotton to put his own ambitions ahead of what's best for Arkansans, and the people of our state deserve better."
Those votes, along with his background as an Army Ranger who served deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, have made him a star among fiscal and national security conservatives alike — he's perhaps the only establishment-backed Senate candidate on the map this year about whom conservatives are also excited. And in his supporters' telling, Cotton's votes are driven by principle, not politics. They argue that voters will see his record the same way.
"The votes and positions Tom takes are a policy decision, not political decision," said Cotton's spokeswoman, Caroline Rabbit. "Tom always says he learned in the Army that leadership is taking the hard right over the easy wrong, and I think that's an accurate way to describe things here. Tom is a leader. He's been elected by his constituents to represent their best interests and support Arkansans and put our state and nation back on a path of fiscal responsibility."
In private, Cotton backers might concede that his votes aren't perfect politically, but that they won't matter, because President Obama's diminished standing and Arkansas's growing conservatism already make the congressman a strong favorite. They might be right. But for now, Pryor's biggest hopes for victory might come directly from Cotton's own voting record.