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May 16, 2014 12:53 PM Tom Cotton Ain’t All That

By Ed Kilgore

I spent a good while on the phone yesterday (you know, in all my spare time) talking to a national reporter who was writing a story on the Arkansas Senate race, and was looking for fresh perspectives on why Mark Pryor wasn’t quite looking to be the toasty, doomed candidate he seemed to be going into the cycle. I talked a lot about the relatively decent support levels of white voters in Arkansas for Democrats, and the historically low level of African-American turnout in that state in recent years (one analysis I’d read suggested that Arkansas had the second lowest black turnout rate in the nation in 2012), and the major commitment of the DSCC to changing the registration and turnout landscape significantly in places like Arkansas. I also guessed the simple “economic populist” messaging of Democrats might have some significant appeal to downscale white voters in Arkansas. But beyond that, I more vaguely wondered if national Republicans were overrating the personal appeal of Tom Cotton the Wonder Boy against an incumbent who fits his state like a glove.

Today Charlie Cook, who has deep family roots in the Razerback state, also wondered if Cotton is all that well-suited for Arkansas, as evidenced by a recent vote in the House:

My hunch is that a lot of people got a little ahead of their skis in pronouncing Pryor dead, but I also suspect that Cotton’s Jan. 29 vote against the farm bill—he was one of 63 House Republicans, mostly very conservative members, who voted against it, while 162 Republicans voted for it—had something to do with this. Among House Democrats, 89 voted for passage of the farm bill, 103—mostly pretty liberal members from urban districts and unhappy over food-stamp cuts—voted against it. No Republicans in Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, or Missouri voted against the bill, and some of those folks are pretty conservative.
Although Cotton unquestionably has deeply held conservative principles that persuaded him to vote against the farm bill, it sure wasn’t politically expedient for the Senate candidate to vote in opposition. My hunch is that there is a lot of head-scratching over that vote among farmers and folks in rural and small-town Arkansas. Given the increasingly conservative and racially polarized voting patterns in the Deep South, particularly in races like this one, Democratic candidates desperately need to find opportunities to drive a wedge between conservative positions taken by their opponents and what would strike most back home as not in a state’s best interest. It’s times like this when voters have that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” moment, wondering why a member of Congress from a largely rural state would take such a position. This race is far from over, and Cotton still could win. But my guess is, his vote on the farm bill will be a cudgel that Pryor will swing at him from now to November, providing an opening that the incumbent needed and the challenger could ill-afford to give. If Cotton doesn’t regret the vote already, he soon will.

The thing is, Cotton’s brief record is almost certainly rich in votes and utterances that are equally at odds with non-ideologues. Last year Politico’s VandeHei and Allen pointed to Cotton as an example of the new center-of-gravity among conservative backbenchers in the House, which they called the “hell no caucus.” At the time, I was struck by a particular comment by Cotton that seemed to suggest a debt default followed by a good, purging second recession, might be good for the moral tone of the country:

“In an interview in his still-bare office a few hours before being sworn in, Cotton told us he would have voted against both Speaker John Boehner’s ‘Plan B’ tax on millionaires, and the final tax hike that got the country off the fiscal cliff. He vowed to vote against raising the debt limit in two months, absent the sort of massive cuts the president opposes. He said he is more concerned about the ‘cataclysmic’ consequences of inaction than the ‘short-term market corrections’ of default. ‘I’d like to take the medicine now,’ he said.”
If the greater meaning of Cotton’s statement isn’t clear enough, he’s calling a potential return to national and global recession a “short-term market correction,” and “medicine,” the latter reference suggesting that phenomena like millions of people losing their livelihoods is good for the country if it ultimately leads to millions of people losing government benefits.

This sort of “thinking” may not resonate all that well with Arkansas swing voters. But the broader point, which Cook hints at as well, is that national observers took one look at Tom Cotton and his resume—two degrees from Harvard, combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, a gig with McKinsey—and just swooned. Neocons and other defense hawks in particular, who fear the next generation of Republican pols will be infected with libertarian bushwa about the constitutionality of war, look at Cotton and are already envisioning a big national career for him. So aside from low estimates of Democratic prospects in Arkansas, national handicappers may have “got a little ahead of their skis” about Cotton as well.

As for Pryor, let’s don’t forget the guy is a good enough politician that Republicans didn’t even run a candidate against him last time he ran, in a year when Republicans carried Arkansas three-to-two. If anybody can buck the landscape, it’s Pryor. And Tom Cotton ain’t all that.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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