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GOP Sees "Dream" Senate Challenger in Cotton

GOP Sees "Dream" Senate Challenger in Cotton

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 1, 2013

A race that could shape the U.S. Senate landscape will begin next week with some Southern barbeque in a tiny Arkansas town called Dardanelle.

Republican Tom Cotton plans to announce his bid for the upper chamber there, where he grew up on his family's cattle farm. The freshman congressman -- a 36-year-old Harvard law graduate and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- is GOP recruiters’ dream challenger to take on Democrat Mark Pryor, considered among the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.

Pryor, though, has been expecting this and says he is “excited” to take on Cotton. “It’s going to be a big, epic battle in the state,” he told RCP in the Senate basement Wednesday as he headed to his office after casting votes. “I’m excited about it because I think I have a very good story to tell back home about all kinds of different ways I’ve helped Arkansas.”

His home state is one of six that Democrats have to defend where President Obama lost by double digits last November. Republicans, hoping to gain six seats to gain control of the Senate, are setting their sights on the state that has been turning redder since its most famous politician, Bill Clinton, left the governor’s office. Democrats, aiming to keep the Senate through the midterms, have named Arkansas one of “The Big Six” most competitive races of the cycle, and are determined to hold on to it.

Sen. Jerry Moran, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told RCP that Cotton’s impending bid is “good news for the people of Arkansas but also for increasing our numbers in the United States Senate.” Cotton, he said, “is somebody we’ve been very interested in running for the United States Senate for a long time.”

Cotton has been a member of Congress for just seven months, and his “no” votes on most Democratic initiatives have endeared him to the conservative movement while also demanding attention from congressional leaders who see a rising party star. He was considered a potential Senate candidate even before he won the 4th Congressional District last fall, and has been laying the groundwork for an upper chamber bid while also injecting himself into Capitol Hill debates on immigration reform and foreign policy.

Still, Pryor is used to running in a red state and Senate service is something of a family tradition: His father held the seat for nearly 20 years. The former attorney general is also sitting on a $4 million campaign chest, which will go a long way in the rural state. Nonetheless, Pryor expects money from national Republicans and outside groups will be funneled to his opponent. "I know they are going to have gobs of money, there’s no question about that,” he said. “…We’re in the Citizens United world, and we’ve seen what has happened in other states. But we’ve also seen who’s won those races. Democrats." 

Democrats have also learned a lesson from 2010 and intend to avoid a primary fight like the one that badly bruised then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

Pryor’s recent voting record reflects that of a Democrat representing a red state and, therefore, running for re-election by his own book. He was one of only four Democrats to vote against a bipartisan gun-control measure in April, a key part of the president’s goals for adjusting the country’s gun laws after the Newtown massacre. In the first ad of his re-election campaign, Pryor slammed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a fierce gun-control advocate who is running ads against the Democrat in Arkansas. And Pryor is one of just two Democratic lawmakers who oppose gay marriage. But he voted for the Affordable Care Act, a stance that helped doom Lincoln three years ago, and backed the bipartisan immigration law last month that his Republican Arkansas colleague John Boozman did not.

When asked about his challenger, Pryor was happy to talk. “In seven short months, he has managed to alienate women, seniors, the business community, students -- the list goes on and on,” he told RCP. “I think once people look at his record, they’re not going to like it.”

With 137 other Republicans, Cotton voted against a Senate-passed version of the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year. He also voted with a majority of his colleagues against a farm bill that included food stamp funding, while backing a separate “farm-only” bill that passed the House this month. On Wednesday evening, he voted against a Senate-passed student-loan rate fix.

A conservative group involved in congressional races has called Cotton a “rock star.”

“One of the weakest Democrats in the Senate this cycle is now facing potentially the strongest Republican challenger of the cycle,” said Steven Law, CEO of American Crossroads.

While Cotton often bucks his party leadership, his resume and ability to artfully articulate opposition to, for example, immigration reform is attractive to them. Cotton joined the Army after 9/11 as an infantry officer, and completed combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He later worked as a management consultant in Washington before returning to his home state to prepare for his 2012 run for Congress. He won easily in the 4th District -- where Bill Clinton was born -- after Blue Dog Democrat Mike Ross retired. The Club for Growth helped fund his bid and often praises his votes in the House.

Cotton represents a rural and economically challenged district, the biggest in the state. Though his party colleagues consider him a big get, observers note he doesn’t have the statewide recognition Pryor does.

“He won one race last fall, and that’s really it,” Pryor said.

And, if Democrats have their way, voters will see Cotton as an opportunist running for a higher office soon after winning his House seat. “There are a number of Washington groups that were instrumental in recruiting Tom Cotton into this race, and I think they're going to regret recruiting somebody so ideological who was just elected last year and already thinks he deserves a promotion,” DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet told reporters.

Cotton has already raised $1 million this cycle, and Democrats have been attacking him for a few months now, in anticipation of him entering the fray.

The Associated Press first reported the news of Cotton’s Senate bid. Next Tuesday, he will host a “campaign dinner” for supporters at a community center in Dardanelle. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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