Joni Ernst, Tom Cotton, and the Path to 2020

The two up-and-coming senators would fill different lanes in the next possible GOP nomination fight.

Sen. Tom Cotton waves as he speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday.
AP Photo/John Locher
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
July 19, 2016, 6:22 p.m.

CLEVELAND—Donald Trump hadn’t even officially become the GOP’s presidential nominee before early-state primary voters began to get a glimpse at what the next campaign might hold for their party.

In the basement of a dimly lit gastropub here Tuesday afternoon, Tom Cotton was making his first impression to a group of Iowa Republicans gathered for a luncheon. With former state party chairman Matt Strawn, the cohost of the event, at his side, the senator from Arkansas introduced himself to delegates, local party leaders, and eventually the current chairman, Jeff Kaufmann.

“I was very proud of Joni [Ernst],” Cotton told Kaufmann, referring to the senator’s GOP convention address, which took place the same night as his own. “I do think it’s good to have new, young faces in the party.”

Kaufmann, in turn, said he hoped Cotton would visit the first-in-the-nation caucus state. “I can hardly wait to welcome you,” he said.

Of all the rising stars within the GOP, Cotton and Ernst are in a unique position. Not only did the two freshman senators endorse Trump and attend the convention, but they delivered speeches Monday night and participated in events throughout the week. Many other up-and-coming Republicans, hoping to distance themselves from their divisive nominee as much as possible, avoided Cleveland altogether. Cotton and Ernst, though, just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to build their national profiles and prepare for a post-Trump world. And both are going about it in distinct ways.

For his part, Cotton is clearly beginning to lay the groundwork for a future White House bid. He’s already visited with the Iowa and South Carolina Republican delegations this week, and is scheduled to address New Hampshire’s Wednesday morning. Cotton headlined a South Carolina GOP dinner in May, and is slated to travel to Nevada in August.

Cotton, a 39-year-old Harvard Law School graduate and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is already a favorite with the neoconservative wing of the GOP. He is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he’s been a leading critic of the nuclear deal that the Obama administration struck with Iran. Now, his challenge is delivering his message to a broader audience.

Cotton, who is not especially dynamic behind a podium, was overshadowed at the convention Monday night by more fiery speakers such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

He performed better before the smaller Iowa delegation audience Tuesday, covering a wide range of topics, from national security to immigration to the recent shooting of police officers. And Cotton made sure to tout his local connection, noting near the top of his remarks that his wife was born in Iowa (although she lived in neighboring Nebraska). He did not, however, make one mention of Trump during his 14-minute speech.

It was a similar story during his convention speech, aside from a passing reference to the “Trump-Pence administration.” At an event hosted by The Atlantic earlier in the day, Cotton acknowledged he had “some disagreements” with Trump, but added: “I think America will be safer and more prosperous with a Republican president and a Republican Congress than I do with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress.”

Ernst, meanwhile, is positioning herself as a national political figure, but it’s less clear whether she has the Oval Office in her immediate sights. Most of her efforts in Cleveland this week have been directed—at least, ostensibly—towards helping her fellow senators who are in tight reelection battles. She spoke before the New Hampshire and Pennsylvania delegations Tuesday to stump for Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey, who are skipping the convention. Ernst also campaigned with Sen. Rob Portman on Monday.

Her rural Iowa background, military service, and folksy personality will help ensure that she’ll continue to be an on-demand surrogate this fall. Ernst also has broader appeal across the GOP spectrum compared to Cotton. According to a spokeswoman, she’s already traveled to New Hampshire, Arizona, and Illinois to campaign for her Senate colleagues.

“She wasn’t coming out there as a political animal. She was just being very straightforward, and it’s very refreshing to see somebody like that,” said New Hampshire delegate Paul Speltz, who backed Jeb Bush during the primary and saw Ernst speak in person for the first time Tuesday. “What we need is young and up-and-coming people.”

Ernst, 46, was poised to make her first big splash Monday night with a primetime speech before the Republican convention. But the speaker before her, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, ran long, so Ernst didn’t take the stage until after 11 p.m. By then, the networks were no longer carrying the convention live, and many of the attendees began to head for the exits. When she did finally take the stage, Ernst showed she was more willing to bring up Trump than Cotton, saying the real-estate mogul “gave a voice to millions of Americans who are tired of politics as usual.”

Despite this minor convention blip, Iowa Republicans are confident that Ernst has a bright future ahead of her—no matter which route she takes.

“I think she’ll be like [Iowa Sen. Chuck] Grassley—she’ll be there as long as she wants,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said.

There’s no shortage of ambitious Republicans eyeing 2020 or 2024. Scott Walker paid visits to the Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina delegations in Cleveland this week. As National Review reported, Ted Cruz is expanding his political network. John Kasich is scheduled to appear before the New Hampshire delegation Wednesday. And others who weren’t active at the convention—like Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, and Nikki Haley—are viewed as potential candidates.

With the 2016 election still more than 100 days away, all of this jockeying may seem premature. But for 82-year-old Grassley, it’s nothing new.

“Ever since I’ve been in the United States Senate,” Grassley said, “except for the two that were foreign-born, I’ve never met a senator that didn’t think they’d be a good president.”

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