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Is This 36-Year-Old Veteran the Future of the GOP? Is This 36-Year-Old Veteran the Future of the GOP?

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Is This 36-Year-Old Veteran the Future of the GOP?

Two Ivy League degrees. Two tours of duty. Can Tom Cotton win the Senate for the GOP?

(Richard A. Bloom)

photo of Marin Cogan
December 6, 2013

HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—On a recent late-fall Saturday, Barbara Deuschle, a local restaurant owner, was recounting her first impression of her congressman, Tom Cotton, who is now running for the Senate. It was back in August 2011, just before the young Republican lawmaker formally announced his first campaign for the House, and Cotton and his dad came to a party meeting to get to know the faithful. Cotton was a 34-year-old political unknown who had recently lived in Washington. "When he just parachuted down into this district, nobody ever heard of him," she recalls. "I said, 'Who are you? We'd never heard of you before, where have you been? And what's this all about?' I grilled him for about 20 minutes."

There is little doubt that Cotton is winning conservative hearts and minds in Washington.

She began to piece together Cotton's personal history—born in Yell County; spent time in Cambridge, Mass., Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington, including a stint in the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. She had read recently that the guards who stand sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns are expected to have a 30-inch waist, and the diminutive Deuschle remembers gazing up at the 6-foot-5 veteran. "He's so tall. I'm looking about at his belly button. I'm seeing his belt buckle, this skinny, teeny little waist, and I said to him, 'Well, yeah, you still could be one of them,' " she recalls. "And he's so humble! And unassuming!" Deuschle was impressed, if a little suspicious. "I spent the next 10 months going around trying to figure out, 'What is wrong with him?' He was too good to be true."

 

Deuschle never found anything to justify her suspicion, but she did touch on what's thrilled Republicans and captivated Washingtonians since Cotton arrived just 11 months ago as the newest representative of Arkansas's 4th District: He seems too good to be true. With his sterling résumé—he has undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and served in both of America's post-9/11 wars—Cotton seems like a throwback to another era, when military service and an Ivy League pedigree were common plot points on the road to elected office. In August, after just seven months in the House, Cotton announced he would challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor for his seat next year. Pryor has deep ties here (his father, David Pryor, was also a senator and governor), but five years of Barack Obama's presidency has turned Arkansas into a hellscape for Democrats. In 2009, five of the state's six congressional members were Democrats; today, Pryor is the only one left. The state Legislature also flipped to Republicans last November for the first time since Reconstruction. Just 34 percent of likely voters approve of Pryor, a precipitous 19-point drop from his 53 percent rating last year (his Republican colleague John Boozman also polled at 34 percent). Less than one-third of the voters in the state approve of Obama. The most shocking index of Arkansan frustration is that, even as national polls show that more Americans blame Republicans for the government shutdown, more of the state's likely voters blame Obama and the Democrats. And that was before the health care website catastrophe and the canceled insurance plans—before Republicans were given a political gift so good it could keep on giving all the way through the 2014 elections.

In other words, the timing couldn't be better for a fresh-faced conservative candidate, especially one with such a perfect pedigree, to go for one of the six seats the Republican Party needs to win back the Senate in 2014. There is little doubt that Cotton is winning conservative hearts and minds in Washington. He's been called the future of the party and the last, best hope for GOP war hawks. He won the first endorsement from Marco Rubio's PAC for the 2014 cycle. Cotton has been the subject of intensely positive coverage from National Review and The Weekly Standard—including one profile so glowing it prompted Slate's Dave Weigel to remark that it was "best read while listening to John Philip Sousa and cooling an apple pie."

The result is that Democrats are fumbling in their search for an angle of attack. A Pryor campaign website called Ambitious Tom plays on Cotton's youth and political inexperience, arguing that three "luxury trips" he took with the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute show that special interests had "successfully urged" him to support their conservative, pro-business agenda. The state Democratic Party has asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to review whether Cotton broke the law on a Hugh Hewitt radio-show appearance earlier this year when he plugged his campaign website after Hewitt claimed Cotton was inside the Capitol. (Cotton later clarified that he'd walked outside to take the call; Hewitt said he had misspoken.) The closest Cotton has come to scandal is the appearance of his political director in a grainy, late-night surveillance video of a few state representatives and women they aren't married to walking—just walking—the halls of the state Capitol one night. The Arkansas Times has called it "the silliest political scandal in Arkansas history." So far, Cotton appears untouchable. "There's a certain risk you take by not having completed a single term in Congress before running for the next office," admits one of his fellow Arkansas Republicans, Rep. Steve Womack. But on the other hand, Womack says, "there are assailable flanks that Pryor is exposed to, and Tom will exploit those."

"We've got a lot of problems in this country, and someone should be in a hurry to fix them."

In a meeting room across the hall from his health care gathering, Cotton smirks at the criticism. "Apparently Mark Pryor doesn't want to talk about a single issue. He just wants to run negative ads and not defend his own record. Of course, if I was the decisive vote for Obamacare and I voted for Barack Obama 95 percent of the time, I wouldn't want to defend my record either," he says. Cotton has an angular, Andy Griffith look that reveals intense energy and rhetorical sharpness. His outfit can't seem to decide whether it's a weekend or a workday: He wears a green sleeveless L.L. Bean fleece zipped up over a white dress shirt, with light washed jeans and black dress shoes. "As for my opponent's claim that I'm a young man in a hurry," he says, "I would say that we've got a lot of problems in this country, and someone should be in a hurry to fix them. And I certainly am. I'm not going to be a backbench, go-along, get-along senator the way Mark Pryor has been the last five years under Barack Obama."

What does it mean to be the future of the party? In Cotton, Republicans see projections of what they want it to be—a tea-party upstart's temperament with an establishmentarian's appreciation of the deeply held core values that the party has drifted away from in recent years. In his quick rise, there are answers.

AN OLDER FASHION

If you closed your eyes and just listened to him, it would be easy to imagine that Cotton comes from another generation—not the one into which he was born (Gen X), but maybe the baby boomers or even the Greatest Generation. But here he is, at 36, sitting in his congressional office, adopting the posture of a statesman far more senior than he: long fingers steepled together contemplatively, longer limbs crossed and folded at 90-degree angles. Behind him, directly across from the couch where visitors might sit, loom the mementos of his Army service: colors from his unit at Fort Campbell, Ky.; a guidon he received when leaving for Afghanistan in 2008. "I tell 18-to-22-year-olds all the time that there's a lot of things you can do in your life that'll be a mistake, but one thing that will never be a mistake is joining your country's military," he says.

Tom Cotton, Republican Dream Candidate

"In this day and age, irony and snark rule, but he's a bit of a throwback and a traditionalist," says Ken Lee, a friend from Harvard who reconnected with Cotton when he realized they shared an apartment building in Arlington five years ago. "He has a strong sense of duty and believes that America can be a force of good for the world. Some people may think it's corny, but I think he truly believes it." In college, nearly everyone expected Cotton to get involved in politics someday. "I had a really good idea Tom would run for office," says Marvin Ammori, who got to know him when they were in the same section at Harvard Law School. "His hero was Winston Churchill." Ammori remembers that Cotton was a fan of Plato,loved the novels of Jane Austen and the movie Titanic, and hated American Beauty, the 1999 Oscar winner that portrayed the dark underbelly of American suburbia.

As an undergrad, Cotton studied with Harvey Mansfield, the controversial conservative professor who wrote a book extolling the virtues of traditional masculinity. In his free time, Cotton played basketball with friends and wrote for the school paper. "We were there during the Clinton era," says Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a fellow conservative who wrote for The Harvard Crimson. "To be a Republican on the Harvard campus then took real courage."

In his Crimson columns, Cotton fashioned himself a contrarian among a sea of liberals. He criticized college kids for drinking too much, Americans for indulging President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and academia for worshipping at the altar of diversity. He could be pedantic: When the staff wrote an editorial worrying over the future of the Tasty, a sandwich shop in Harvard Square, Cotton wrote to dissent that the real reason to keep the shop open was not that it was the only 24-hour restaurant available, but because a "better approach is to defend The Tasty ... in the name of community good will and to advocate a capitalist approach to restaurants in the Square." He wrote in favor of covenant marriage and against feminist opposition to it. In the op-ed, Cotton surveyed some of the women he went to college with about their greatest hopes and fears. The answers, he said, were uniform: Women most feared being divorced or left by their husbands, and most hoped for a happy life and marriage. He concluded: "Feminists who allegedly speak for women should attack divorce, not its effects. If men have easy access to divorce, many will choose it thoughtlessly. They may not gain true happiness with their new trophy wives, but they certainly will not slide into the material indigence and emotional misery that awaits most divorced women."

In his final column, Cotton reflected on his contrarian stance. "Only last weekend I was characterized (good-naturedly) as someone who would like to have lived a century or two ago. I suppose that comports with my acknowledged contrarian sympathies, though it is not simply correct," he wrote. "I probably appreciate the alien world revealed in Plato's dialogues and Jane Austen's novels more than most others do. But it is because of this appreciation, not in spite of it, that I also probably appreciate our world and the possibilities of it more than most others do." (Courtesy of Rep. Tom Cotton's office)

After graduating, Cotton studied at the conservative Claremont Institute in California. But, restless, he returned to Harvard Law School a year later. In his tweed jackets with patched elbows, he sometimes looked more like a professor than a student. Friends called him "Proctor Tom" because he served as a resident adviser. He kept a picture of Churchill on his dormitory door, where he lived with the college freshmen.

Cotton spent the first few years after school clerking for a federal judge on the 5th Circuitand working at a law firm. But 9/11, which occurred during his thirdyear at law school, cemented his determination to enlist. When he joined the military, says Capt. Matt Mobley, who met Cotton when both were in Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., other cadets suspected Cotton's motives. The class was divided between soldiers who had been in the military for years—guys from middle- and working-class backgrounds who were in for the long haul—and trainees who had come in without any military experience. "Those of us who had been in Army and military service for a while kind of view the people coming in off of the street as fresh-faced, naive, young go-getters who just want to be officers so they can check off a career box," Mobley says. "Once we found out Tom's background, that was our initial thought." But, Mobley says, "he made it very clear from the get-go that that was not his intent; there was an endearing sincerity about him." He remembers Cotton as being obsessed with understanding the minute details of Army life. "Sometimes you'd have to be like, 'Look, these are the things you just do.' He'd be like, 'Why? Why?' I'm like, 'Oh, come on, man.' "

Cotton's first overseas deployment was in Iraq. "In very simple layman's terms, my job in Iraq was to go out and find, kill, or capture bad guys," he says. It was there that he discovered that The New York Times had revealed a secret CIA program designed to trace the financial activities of suspected terrorists. The decision of The Times, along with The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, to report it was controversial. Cotton wrote a scathing letter to the editor, saying that the investigation had put him and his men in danger. "Congratulations on disclosing our government's highly classified antiterrorist-financing program (June 23). I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq." He ended by calling for the imprisonment of The Times' top editors: 

And, by the way, having graduated from Harvard Law and practiced with a federal appellate judge and two Washington law firms before becoming an infantry officer, I am well-versed in the espionage laws relevant to this story and others—laws you have plainly violated. I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.

The Times declined to publish Cotton's letter, but he sent a copy to the conservative Power Line blog—and its readers were impressed with his chutzpah. Overnight, Cotton had become something of a cause célèbre in the conservative blogosphere. "Initially, my chain of command was not very pleased—not necessarily that I wrote the letter (that's within any soldier's right), but not very pleased that I didn't tell them," Cotton says, sounding a bit pleased with himself. "But it turns out that the chief of staff for the Army, Pete Schoomaker, had seen the letter, and he forwarded it to all Army generals and said it was great words of wisdom from a brave lieutenant on the front lines. I went from getting chewed out to getting patted on the back overnight."

After Iraq, Cotton served in the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, participating in funerals for fallen service members and other ceremonies. It was a mission, according to his emails to friends at the time, he took seriously. "With or without press, rain or shine, cold or heat, day or night, the honors we pay to our fallen are deeply respectful, solemn, and unchanging," he wrote, in one of the email updates he sent to friends obtained by National Journal. While serving in the Old Guard, Cotton got to know William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard—the two had begun corresponding when Cotton emailed Kristol to comment favorably on an article while he was stationed in Iraq. But in 2008, he volunteered to deploy again, this time to Afghanistan, as an operations officer for a provincial reconstruction team. On July 4, 2009, he wrote to friends, "We celebrate the Declaration's words on the Fourth, but those words must be vindicated with arms—then, now, and always. Our great troopers' bravery, skill, and fighting spirit are therefore inspiring and reassuring things to behold on the Fourth."

It was Cotton's steadfast commitment to these ideals even in his private life, demonstrated through the stilted epistolary style, even with some of his closest friends, that led them to wonder if they hadn't gotten past his polished exterior. Who was the man beneath all this pomp? "He's very careful to make sure that your perception that you have of him right now is all there is," says one.

ICONOCLAST?

In January, only a few days after Cotton was sworn in, Politico declared him the new face of the "Hell No Caucus"—essential to understanding the House Republican Conference. "To much of the country, Cotton is nothing more than a straight, Southern, white, male, 'radical' conservative—a befuddling relic of a fading slice of politics," Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote. "But in Washington, he is the Republican Congress. Only through understanding lawmakers like him can you understand why the grand bargain collapsed, why raising the debt limit is not a given, and why [House Speaker John] Boehner has vowed to quit for good his private chats with President Barack Obama, and instead invest more power in the Tom Cottons of the world." The article zeroed in on the Club for Growth's early endorsement of Cotton, demonstrated via an envelope full of checks from members that helped propel the little-known primary candidate to Washington, as one reason he had little personal interest in supporting Boehner on key issues in the upcoming Congress.

As a member of Congress, Cotton made himself a favorite among the Heritage Action and Club for Growth set. According to the Club for Growth, it has raised $332,479 for him so far this campaign cycle. In his first year in Congress, he was such a reliably conservative vote that he was sometimes at odds with the rest of the Republicans in his delegation. Cotton was the only House lawmaker from Arkansas to vote for the Republican Study Committee budget and against the farm bill—which he said had turned into a "food-stamp bill." (When Republicans later voted to strip food-stamp funding from the bill, Cotton joined his delegation in voting yes.)

"He's genuine. He just blew my socks off. I tried so hard to find out: 'What is wrong with you?' But I haven't found anything."

He has shown a willingness to oppose the party's activist wing in notable ways (he voted for the debt-limit deal that ended the government shutdown earlier this year), especially on matters of deep personal conviction, such as foreign policy and national security. On these issues, Cotton stands out for positions that put him on the opposite side of the isolationism of Rand Paul's wing of the party. Earlier this year, when President Obama sought support for military intervention in Syria, he found an unlikely ally in Cotton, who, with another veteran, Rep. Mike Pompeo, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post urging fellow Republicans to support the president. It was a risky move—conservatives online, and even some in his home state, were disappointed. "If you do agree with the president ... that's not positive on any front; that's not good," a former state GOP official says.

But Cotton's friends say it shouldn't have been a surprise. In a television appearance earlier this year, he called the Iraq War a "just and noble war." When a Republican colleague from Michigan, Justin Amash, introduced an amendment to curtail the National Security Agency's data-collection capabilities earlier this year, Cotton took to the floor to slam it—and did so forcefully enough that his hawkish colleagues applauded him afterward. In April, Cotton told Politico: "I think that George Bush largely did have it right: that we can't wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can't let the world's most dangerous people get the world's most dangerous weapons, and that we have to be willing to defend our interests and the safety of our citizens abroad even if we don't get the approval of the United Nations."

Says one friend of Cotton's who didn't want to be identified because he is also friendly with influential conservative Sen. Ted Cruz: "I'll just say this: I don't think he'll be like Ted Cruz, being a bomb-thrower and attracting attention for himself and doing things that are probably harmful to the Republican Party by being very strident. He'll be conservative, but he's not going to do that." And, on cue, when a national GOP spokesman questioned Pryor's devotion to the Bible this week, Cotton rushed to his opponent's defense.

In other words, the future of the Republican Party might not look so different from its past. Already, Democrats are working to establish the perception that Cotton is too far to the right for Arkansas. And while national party leaders are warning the GOP it needs to branch out beyond its Southern white-male base, in Arkansas, nothing is likely to hold as much salience for voters as the Affordable Care Act. Cotton has introduced legislation proving his anti-Obamacare bona fides, including his own version of the Vitter amendment—a measure that ensures congressional staffers entering the exchanges are denied employer-based subsidies they previously enjoyed—which would mean a de facto pay cut to staffers, some of whom make as little as $30,000 a year. The proposal is premised at best on a misreading of the law and at worst on a lie, but it gives Republicans an easy talking point: They're fighting for fairness for all under the new law, even if it ensures that members and staff are treated differently from everyone else.

"Right now, it's a different time for Democrats in Arkansas. The president is very, very unpopular; his health plan is very, very unpopular, so Arkansas in the last three or four years has really shifted. It's a very conservative state," says Boozman, who would become the state's senior senator next year if Cotton wins.

Back at the Hot Springs meeting on health care, when Cotton tells the constituents, "I have long stood for repeal of this abominable law," they break into applause. Barbara Deuschle, clutching her purse in front of her against a white fleece jacket decorated with American flags, swears she hasn't ever encountered anyone like Tom Cotton in more than three decades in campaigns. "He's genuine. He just blew my socks off. I tried so hard to find out: 'What is wrong with you?' But I haven't found anything."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount that the Club for Growth has contributed to Cotton's Senate campaign; it has raised $332,479 for him to date.

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