The Curious Votes of the GOP’s Favorite Candidate

The votes that have made Tom Cotton a Republican star might help his opponent in the fall.

National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Jan. 29, 2014, 9:03 a.m.

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.

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