It’s no secret that Rep. Tom Cotton is Washington neocons’ favorite son this election cycle. In less than two years, the Harvard-educated Iraq and Afghan war vet has become his generation’s “anti-Rand,” vocally defending the Iraq War as “just and noble” and rejecting his party’s growing libertarian inclinations on global affairs.
The House freshman from Yell County is in a dead heat with Sen. Mark Pryor in the Arkansas Senate race. A Cotton victory would get Republicans one step closer to taking back control of the Senate, and Cotton one step closer to the place many neoconservatives want to see him—the White House.
Cotton has occupied mini-legend status in some quarters of the right since 2006, when he penned an op-ed as an active-duty lieutenant in Iraq to The New York Times, excoriating the paper for making public details of an American program to track terrorist financing. The Times never ran the letter, but the right-of-center blog Power Line did, and a conservative star was born.
When Cotton ran for the House from Arkansas in 2012, Bill Kristol praised him in the Weekly Standard as a small-town Arkansan with all of the political talent of Bill Clinton and none of Bubba’s moral failings. Hawks from across the country encouraged Cotton to run for the Senate once he got to the House, and just as the advice flowed in from the neocons, so did the checks.
The list of Cotton’s Senate donors reads like an American VIP roll call from Operation Iraqi Freedom. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has maxed out to Cotton, as has former President George W. Bush. Dan Senor, the White House’s spokesman for Operation Iraqi Freedom throughout the war, hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for Cotton in his home, raising cash from a cadre of conservative heavyweights including GOP mega donor Sheldon Adelson.
In addition, Cotton has picked up $5,000 each from John McCain’s Country First PAC, former Rep. Allen West’s Guardian Fund PAC, and the John Bolton PAC, the money machine started by Bush’s ultra-hawkish former ambassador to the U.N.
Bolton has not only given Cotton money from his PAC, he has directed an additional $271,000 of Super PAC money into the race to, in his words, “turn back the clock on six years of botched Obama policies at home and abroad.”
While the securities industry is the largest sector to donate to Cotton’s campaign, the largest single source of those donations has been Elliott Management Corp., the hedge fund run by Paul Singer, a neocon defense hawk who has pushed his party to evolve on gay rights.
The money and words of praise are helpful for Cotton, but only to an extent.
On the financial front, Cotton can use all the cash he can get, since Pryor has out-raised him, $8.9 million to $7 million. Cotton is also seeing significantly more untraceable, outside “dark money” spent against him, to the tune of $5 million.
The largest chunk of Pryor’s cash has come from lawyers and lobbyists, while most of Cotton’s money has come from donors affiliated with the Club for Growth, Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs and hedge funds. Altogether, 42 percent of Pryor’s war chest has come from Arkansas, compared to 29 percent of Cotton’s.
Even with the disparities, there’s no question both campaigns will have the resources they need to get to November. But there is a question about the campaigns’ messages going into the final weeks, as the United States continues airstrikes in Syria and Cotton and Pryor try to navigate the right path to Election Day.
A Suffolk University poll released Tuesday showed Cotton trailing Pryor by 2 points, essentially a dead heat. But it also revealed that for the first time this campaign cycle, 16 percent of Arkansas voters called terrorism their top issue, behind only the economy and health care.
To paint Pryor as the safe choice in troubled times, Democrats have been running a campaign calling Cotton “reckless” and “risky,” reminding voters that Cotton has been calling for airstrikes in Syria for more than a year. Now that President Obama has conducted those strikes in Syria, though, it’s not clear how the issue will affect voters’ decisions.
“It cuts both ways,” says a Republican consultant involved in the Arkansas elections. “Voters are war weary. A strong message works with seniors, but you have to worry about women.” The consultant described Cotton as “very pragmatic” on issues related to defense, “but it’s easy to make him look like he wants to bomb anything that moves.”
The key for Cotton will be how to thread the needle for voters on the issue, giving them the security they want without the imminent war they seem to fear. The Cotton campaign has continued to put Cotton’s war veteran bio at the center of his ads, even warning in the latest one of crises, tyranny, and a new, brutal terrorist threat.
“A world on chaos and Obama’s answer is weakness,” the narrator says. “We need a senator like Tom Cotton.”
Bill Kristol could not have said it better himself.