At a time when Republicans are searching for a strategy after the defeats of 2012, a rising star is poised to help the party achieve at least one of its goals--winning back the Senate. Freshman Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an Iraq war veteran holding two Harvard degrees and an insider's understanding of Washington, is new to the House but is already being talked about as a top challenger to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.
But Cotton faces a dilemma: Does he stay in the House seat he just won and gain some experience? Or does he launch a Senate campaign that could knock off Pryor, who's popular, but vulnerable in deeply conservative Arkansas? In an interview with National Journal, Cotton says he has not decided whether he’ll run, but it's clearly on his mind.
"Someone asked me on the campaign trail if I would commit to running again in two years. I said, 'Have you seen my resume?' I can't commit to do anything for more than two years," Cotton quipped.
Cotton immediately drew the eye of national Republicans during his Congressional campaign, and stands out in a primary field without any brand-name contenders. So far, only Arkansas Lt. Gov. Mark Darr has expressed interest in the race. In the eyes of Republican strategists, Cotton is a more formidable challenger against Pryor, who this week announced that Bill Clinton will be campaigning for him.
The Arkansas Senate race is something of a must-win for Republicans if they want to entertain any hopes of winning back a majority. Senate Republicans need to net six seats, with a sweep all but necessary against Democrats holding seats in deeply conservative states, like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and South Dakota.
"The national Republicans and state Republicans are going to put a lot of pressure on Cotton," said a former Democratic Senate aide familiar with Arkansas politics. The Democrat argued Cotton is likely the only Republican in the state who can compete with Pryor, who coasted to office in 2008 and enjoys wide name recognition. Indeed, Cotton has already won fans at the influential conservative Club for Growth because he's viewed as an articulate voice for Republican ideas.
The freshman lawmaker already received top billing at this weekend’s National Review Institute summit, joining prospective 2016 presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal among the featured speakers.
“Tom Cotton has a bright future, and I think he could be a great candidate,” said Arkansas Republican Rep. Tim Griffin, who himself was considered a potential candidate for the Senate contest. He has since been named to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and is no longer expected to run.
Even so, the freshman lawmaker would have to juggle charges that he is using the House seat as a springboard for higher office and a higher profile. Some Republicans warn that it would be dangerous to rush to run for the Senate too soon. He has already raised eyebrows after writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense Secretary.
"[Cotton's] barely sworn in and he's coming out against Hagel?" said the Democratic aide.
Democratic strategists compare Cotton to former North Dakota Rep. Rick Berg, who won plaudits for defeating a longtime Democratic congressman in the 2010 midterm wave, but immediately left his House seat to run for the Senate. In conservative North Dakota, Berg lost in an upset to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
Defeating Pryor isn’t going to be that easy, either, despite the conservative moorings of Arkansas. Pryor has nearly $1.8 million in cash on hand and his popular father, the former senator and governor David Pryor, will be campaigning for his son across the state.
"I don't believe that Pryor is as vulnerable as Blanche Lincoln was at the same time in 2010,” said Clint Reed, an Arkansas-based political GOP political strategist, who served as regional political director for the RNC.