Why you should care

You may think Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are the new face of GOP leadership, but what if it turns out they’re just decoys? Tom Cotton has the attention of GOP stalwarts and Tea Party faithful alike. 

Two decades ago, a “man from Hope” helped Democrats retake the White House. Today, Republican pundits think the man who represents that same town of Hope in Congress can help lead their party out of the political wilderness and, one day, could also end up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

That’s how bright the future seems for Tom Cotton, a 36-year-old Harvard grad and combat veteran who won his first political contest, to represent Arkansas’ Fourth District in the U.S. House, last fall. Amid some of the worst factionalism the Republican Party has seen in decades, Cotton has demonstrated the rare ability to appeal to both the Tea Party and establishment wings of the GOP — a less divisive idealist than Ted Cruz with the hawkish credentials of John McCain.

But for all the hype, it’s still no sure thing that Cotton will win his next election — he’s taking on incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Pryor in what is forecast to be one of the biggest slugfests of the 2014 campaign season.

Hope, Arkansas, was famously the birthplace of former President Bill Clinton. In fact, when OZY’s Carlos Watson recently caught up with Clinton, the former president remembered the Cotton family as supporters, adding that he’s been impressed by Cotton’s performance during recent congressional hearings. Cotton was born and raised about two and a half hours away from Hope, on his family’s cattle farm in Dardanelle, a town of roughly 5,000.

The proximity of their hometowns is about where the similarities between the two men end. Cotton, for one, is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. And he gives off little of Clinton’s folksy charm. If anything, he bears more of a resemblance to our current commander-in-chief — stylistically, at least. Cool. Cerebral. Articulate. And lanky.

Color photo of Tom Cotton in uniform holding up a weapon.

Congressman-elect Tom Cotton joined the U.S. Army in 2004, compelled to enlist after the tragedy of September 11.

Source Tom Cotton

“He’s an imposing presence at 6-foot-5,” says Roby Brock, the host of a weekly Arkansas television show, Talk Business , who has interviewed Cotton on his program and on another local one, Capitol View — and has covered him on the campaign trail.

And though he’s a political neophyte, Cotton has pretty good instincts, according to Brock. “He can walk into the room and light it up,” he says. He’s also a proven fundraiser .

What really makes Republicans salivate, however, is Cotton’s résumé.

He earned undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, and then a clerkship at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Houston. Compelled by the Sept. 11 attacks to enlist in the U.S. Army, he served a tour in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009, winning a Bronze Star among other medals. After he returned home he did a brief stint at elite consulting firm McKinsey and Company before moving back to Arkansas to run for office in 2012.

“He’s got a unique story, he’s a businessperson, he’s had an outstanding military career and he’s just a sharp guy,” says John Boozman, Arkansas’ Republican senator. “His background, being so varied, appeals to a lot of people.”

Even before Cotton took his seat in Congress, he was being hyped as the future of the GOP.

John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, is among them. Citing their shared interest in foreign policy and national security and experience as combat veterans, McCain has taken Cotton under his wing, in a way, including him in the congressional delegation to a high-level annual international security conference in Munich in February and spending time with him down in Arkansas.

“He’s a fine man,” says McCain.

Cotton first gained national attention in 2006 when, as a U.S. Army lieutenant in Iraq, he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times — and forwarded it to the conservative PowerLine blog — complaining about a story that disclosed the existence of a covert program for tracking terrorist financing. In the letter, Cotton called for the paper and the story’s reporters to be prosecuted under the Espionage Law. Though the Times did not publish the letter, PowerLine did.

It quickly went viral, drawing cheers from conservatives and condemnation from liberals.

Even before Cotton took his seat in Congress, he was being hyped as the future of the GOP.

He’s attended fewer than half the panel’s hearings — not a great showing for a guy seeking to build a reputation as a foreign-policy wonk.

“You’ve been touted by so many as a possible star of the freshman Republican class,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos noted when he interviewed Cotton on his Sunday show in early January.

Republican commentator Bill Kristol suggested on Fox News last February that perhaps “we’ll have the Rubio-Cotton ticket in 2016,” referring to Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, another GOP rising star.

Color photo of Tom Cotton, center, shaking hands and smiling.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, center, is greeted by Stan Garner, right, and other constituents after a Danville Lions Club meeting Aug. 26, 2013.

Source Danny Johnston/Corbis

Outside of the political pundit class, however, Cotton is still largely unknown.

He’s done little in Congress to distinguish himself thus far. Cotton hasn’t participated in much major policymaking, and though he serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he’s not been very active at hearings or on legislation, despite seeking to build a reputation as a foreign-policy wonk.

The few times Cotton has drawn attention are when he has bucked the majority of his House Republican colleagues — supporting President Obama’s request for authority to strike Syria in one instance, and voting to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown in another.

Perhaps the freshman congressman’s arm’s-length embrace of Capitol Hill is understandable, given how low the public rates the institution these days.

“He speaks as if he is an outsider to Washington,” affirms Brock.

But as a politician Cotton is also “relatively new to the state,” having left for college in Boston in 1995 and moving back to Arkansas only a couple years ago, notes Jay Barth, a politics professor at Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas.

And Brock says that because he’s largely unknown and undefined, “the Mark Pryor campaign has had some success in defining him in TV advertising down here as being extreme and reckless.”

Brock covered a Cotton campaign event outside the congressman’s Fourth District recently. Many of the people in the audience that Brock spoke to said they had come because they had read about Cotton and wanted to “see if he is the real deal,” says Brock.

If Cotton is able to unseat the middle-of-the-road Pryor, who has a vast advantage in name recognition and appeals to independents and even some Republicans in this conservative state, the answer will be yes.

Correction: This story was updated March 28 to remove the claim that Cotton did not appear at a majority of House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings between January and November 2013. His staff points out that he did attend, in part, but was not able to make opening statements or ask questions at the majority of these hearings due to competing committee commitments.

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