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?

National Journal
Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
Dec. 6, 2013, midnight

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.

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“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.

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4606) }}

“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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