HOPE, Ark. — Rep. Tom Cotton won’t slow down.
The marathon runner who was declared Congress’ fastest member this year after winning a local race even talks fast, too fast for an Arkansas accent that begs to be drawn out. And he’s in no less of a hurry politically.
Cotton, 36, served just seven months of his first term in the House before deciding he’s ready to move up to the Senate. Over his first congressional summer recess, he set out to oust two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in a race national Republicans believe will help them take control of the Senate.
“Some people say I’m a young man in a hurry,” Cotton said at the start of a two-day, breakneck trip across his native Arkansas. “With the problems we have, we need someone in a hurry.”
Pryor responded with an ad deriding Cotton’s aggressive pace as “blind ambition.”
Republicans promise to spend heavily on Cotton’s behalf and are optimistic about his chances — not in spite of his political inexperience, but because of it. Voters such as Felice Barrett, 66, are eager for new faces.
“I’m so excited you’re running,” Barrett gushed as she dragged Cotton aside for a photo at Neal’s Café in Springdale, Ark. “We need young people.”
Cotton won his House seat in 2012 by appealing to conservatives, including the influential and cash-rich Club For Growth, which is also backing his Senate bid. This time he is also backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the “Republican Establishment” of which many conservative supporters are wary.
On the campaign trail, some Arkansas voters wanted Cotton to reassure them of his conservative bona fides.
“I want to know what you can tell us about yourself to convince us that you’re not going to turn RINO [Republican In Name Only] when you get up to the Senate,” Paul Schwindt said at one stop.
“I’m always going to stand with Arkansas families,” Cotton responded, “and not stand with the crowd in Washington who just go along to get along.”
Cotton’s congressional record is a short but rich target for Pryor. Cotton voted against a five-year farm bill (he wants food stamps funded separately); against lower student loan rates (he said the government shouldn’t set any interest rates); and for a Republican plan to balance the budget in five years, mainly through steep cuts to entitlements programs.
While he distances himself from official Washington, Cotton also draws a line with more-ideological Republican conservatives.
He opposes conservative plans for this fall to shut down the government or render it incapable of paying its bills unless they get unlikely concessions from Democrats.
Cotton was in office just a short time before he began speaking up in Republican conference meetings and committee hearings, invoking his military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan when addressing foreign policy and national security issues.
Rep. Steve King, a conservative Iowa Republican, was impressed with how quickly Cotton caught on.
“It seemed to me that Tom Cotton understood this organism more quickly — I can’t think of anybody, actually, who understood it as quickly as he does,” King said. “He’s got a very disciplined, results-oriented, military-type mind.”
Cotton served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne, did burial duty at Arlington National Cemetery and was then sent to Afghanistan to help with reconstruction. He says he supported both those wars and still does. He told CNN this year that he believes Iraq was involved with al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, facts widely discredited during the war.
In his stump speeches, Cotton says he was inspired to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, although he rarely mentions that he first finished law school, worked in private practice and paid off his school loans before he finally enlisted, four years after the attacks.
Cotton doesn’t talk much about his personal life, like his work as a lawyer or as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. He is occasionally joined on the campaign trail by his girlfriend from Washington, but his staff insists she can’t be named “for safety reasons” because she works in the intelligence field.
Cotton was born and still lives in Yell County, Ark., where he once helped his dad herd cattle and, at 6-feet and 5-inches, earned distinction as the highest-percentage shooter on his Dardanelle High School basketball team.
Cotton expected to attend the University of Arkansas like his sister and parents, but then Harvard recruited him to play ball.
Cotton played just one year at Harvard, but completed his undergraduate work there in three years before going on to get his law degree — Ivy League credentials not unlike those of a former Rhodes Scholar who also rose quickly in Arkansas politics, Bill Clinton.
“Somebody with a Harvard education, I think Arkansans are going to be a little suspect at first, like, ‘Do you understand us?’” said Republican state Rep. Charlie Collins. “But…Tom grew up right on the dirt we’re standing [on], and he understands Arkansas first and then has built on top of that with some of his worldly experience and basic common sense.”
Cotton is tactical. He knows when he can’t win. After returning to Arkansas from the army in 2010, he considered challenging then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat. But, facing a crowded primary race and a fight against an incumbent, Cotton walked away.
“He’s had good political instincts,” said Clint Reed, former executive director of Arkansas’s Republican Party.
Toward the end of his first campaign trip of the Senate race, Cotton stopped in Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Ark.
Cotton was 15 when Clinton ran for president in 1992, and Cotton watched the Democrat throughout his high school and college years. He wrote in the Harvard Crimson in 1996 that Clinton is “the most successful campaigner of our time because he is the most sincere campaigner of our time.”
Clinton helped shape Cotton’s political views, if only by contrast. It was Clinton’s policies that convinced Cotton he was a Republican.
Unlike Clinton, Cotton smiles sparingly. He’s dorky and serious, less affable than attentive.
But what he seeks to convey on the campaign trail is sincerity.
“I’m not Bill Clinton,” Cotton said. “I’m not any other politician, and what works for any other politician doesn’t necessarily work for me.”