WASHINGTON – Tom Cotton won a convincing victory over his Democratic opponent in the Senate race in Arkansas by playing to the heavy anti-Obama sentiment in the state.
The Arkansas Republican defeated two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor after a heated and expensive race. The contest drew about $40 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Associated Press declared Cotton the winner immediately after the polls closed. Cotton beat Pryor 56 percent to 40 percent.
Despite President Bill Clinton’s seven trips to his home state to campaign for Democrats, Pryor did not lead in any major polls since April even though he only trailed Cotton by a few percentage points.
Cotton’s campaign strategy was to make every effort to tie Pryor to President Obama, who is widely unpopular in Arkansas.
A Fox News exit poll showed that 40 percent of voters cast their ballots to express opposition to Obama. Thirty-one percent of voters said they had a “positive” view of the administration.
Pryor painted Cotton as an elitist, tea party extremist, and criticized him for being the only Arkansas congressman to vote against the farm bill.
“I will serve and represent every Arkansan, Democrat, Republican, and everyone else,” Cotton said in his victory speech. “While I am a proud Republican, you elected me to represent Arkansas in the U.S. Senate, and it is Arkansas that I will represent.”
Cotton served just one term in Congress before being elected to the Senate. He has close ties to both the tea party movement and the establishment wing of the Republican Party.
At the age of 37, Cotton is an Army veteran. He joined the Army in 2005 after receiving his law degree from Harvard and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will be the youngest lawmaker to serve in the next Senate, taking that title from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), 41.
Cotton’s popularity in some quarters of the right began in 2006, when he penned an op-ed as an active-duty lieutenant in Iraq to the New York Times condemning the paper for making public details of an American program to track terrorist financing. The newspaper never published the letter, but the conservative blog Power Line did. His letter was well received in conservative circles online and put Cotton on the radar.
“You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here,” he wrote. “By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.”
He began corresponding with the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, eventually developing what Kristol has described as “a bond beyond pure policy.” Kristol considers Cotton one of the GOP’s most promising new faces. Shortly after winning the GOP nomination in 2012 for his congressional seat, Kristol said Cotton possessed the same talent of Clinton to “connect with Middle America and with political and financial elite,” but his military record and political views made him superior.
Cotton’s foreign policy views set him on a collision course with another leading young voice in the GOP: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
While Cotton supports expanding the use of drones, Paul has called for legal limits on the U.S. targeted-killing program. While Cotton is open to putting more boots on the ground to fight ISIS, Paul opposes getting more involved in the wars in Syria and Iraq.
At a closed-door gathering hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Cotton clashed with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over the GOP’s foreign policy stance and according to one attendee he delivered an “impressive critique” of Paul’s position on drone policy and national defense, Politico reported.
In a late October speech that is widely seen as a preview of Paul’s 2016 foreign policy platform, he outlined an alternative to the hawkish view in his own party.
“Americans want strength and leadership but that doesn’t mean they see war as the only solution,” Paul said. “Americans yearn for leadership and for strength, but they don’t yearn for war.”
Cotton’s hawkish posture on foreign policy and national defense has won over the likes of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush, both donors to Cotton’s campaign. Cotton was feted at a fundraiser in June by a group of GOP foreign policy hawks hosted at the home of Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led provisional government in Iraq. Cotton picked up donations from Sen. John McCain’s Country First PAC, former Rep. Allen West’s Guardian Fund PAC, and the John Bolton PAC.
Cotton has defended President Bush’s intervention in Iraq as “a just and noble war.”
“I think that George Bush largely did have it right, that we can’t wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can’t let the world’s most dangerous people get the world’s most dangerous weapons,” he said. “And that we have to be willing to defend our interests and the safety of our citizens abroad even if we don’t get the approval of the United Nations.”
The Senate will soon have to address two major foreign policy issues: the Iran nuclear deal and ISIS. These issues are unlikely to be resolved by the time Cotton takes office in January, providing the junior senator an opportunity to exhibit his hawkish foreign policy instinct.
Cotton, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has not indicated whether he would seek a seat on the Senate’s Armed Services, Foreign Relations, or Intelligence committees.
“Cotton has staked his young political career on a staunchly assertive, activist view of American military power,” Politico’s Alexander Burns wrote in a 2013 profile. “To the community of policymakers and elected officials who care passionately – and even exclusively – about a forward-leaning American national security posture, there is no Republican under the age of 40 with more riding on his career than Cotton.”