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This Dark Horse Could Blow Up the 2016 Republican Primary

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a post last September, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote about the path to victory in a potentially wide-open GOP primary: “[Y]ou want to seem conservative enough but not too right-wing, electable but not a liberal sellout, a safe choice for donors who also makes the party’s activists feel respected... [Y]ou win by straddling dispositional and ideological conservatism, raising lots of money, and promising the best chance of victory in November.” Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush could emerge from that rubric, giving primary voters a retread in person or in name, respectively. But those old-breed Republicans may not be sufficiently conservative for a party drifting ever rightward (conservative radio host Mark Levin called Bush a “very good moderate Democrat”).

One dark horse whom ’16 prognosticators have overlooked: Tom Cotton, the 37-year-old junior senator from Arkansas, who trounced old-guard Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor by 17 points in November. A decorated veteran, Harvard Law grad and unapologetic neoconservative hawk, Cotton is a rising star in the GOP who has already nestled into various conservative constituencies.

Now, Cotton has given no public indication that he's looking to run in 2016. A bid to become the youngest elected president in U.S. history would be a stunner, particularly in a party with something of a wait-your-turn tradition. Still, the idea has been floating among politicos in Little Rock, and Cotton has moved aggressively in his political career thus far. As Molly Ball put it in her Atlantic profile, “Cotton has always had a heroic sense of himself.” And the current occupant of the White House, don't forget, ran after just four years in Congress.

Waiting his turn doesn't suit Cotton. “Some people say I’m a young man in a hurry," he likes to say. "They’re right.”

Thomas Bryant Cotton's personal story reads like a political operative’s fantasy. He grew up on a farm in rural Yell County, Arkansas, before he graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and from Harvard Law. Then, he volunteered for the infantry. An Army Ranger, he did stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star.

The conservative media swoons, too. once called him “one of the best candidates running for Congress this election cycle—and possibly ever.” Karl Rove’s American Crossroads anointed him “a conservative leader and rock-star candidate,” and the National Review, which once did a four-part hagiography on Cotton, concluded that “he seems to have it all.” Ubiquitous GOP neocon-sigliere Bill Kristol is Cotton’s No. 1 fan, gushing about a “bond beyond pure policy” and, yes, mentioning Cotton among a couple of dozen possible ’16 candidates. Kristol’s Weekly Standard has been an efficient factory churning out dozens of gushing items since Cotton emerged on the scene—best read, Dave Weigel suggested, “while listening to John Phillip Sousa and cooling an apple pie.”

Beyond the resumé, Cotton adroitly bridges the contentious factions within the party. His Tea Party bona fides are unquestioned; he is popular with the Republican establishment; and he has big money backing from K Street, from mega-donors like Sheldon Alderson and from right-wing advocacy groups like Heritage Action and, most prolifically, the Club for Growth. As Ed Kilgore put it last fall, while vainly hoping Arkansas voters might quash Cotton’s rise: “[H]e manages to be a True Believer in the most important tenets of all the crucial Republican factions. He’s adored by Neocons, the Republican Establishment, the Tea Folk, the Christian Right, and most of all by the Con-Con cognoscenti that draw from both these last two categories.”

Crucially, Cotton has no major apostasy to rattle the Tea Party faithful. Most 2016 contenders have their vulnerabilities: Bush (immigration and education), Marco Rubio (immigration), Chris Christie (any number of policies and choice of photo-op partner). Governors like Mike Pence of Indiana and John Kasich of Ohio advocated for Medicaid expansion in their states, an unforgiveable surrender to Obamacare among Tea Party activists. Meanwhile, Cotton scrupulously avoided taking a position on the privatized version of Medicaid expansion in Arkansas, calling it a “state-based issue." Like his hedging on the state’s minimum wage ballot initiative, Cotton used rhetorical triangulation during the campaign against Pryor without ever doing anything to sully his right-wing scorecards. Cotton’s relative political inexperience is a strength: His short record as a True Conservative is squeaky clean.

Cotton would be well-positioned to run to the right of Bush or Romney—or for that matter, almost anyone. He cast himself as an outlier even from the Arkansas Republican delegation when he voted against the Farm Bill (the “Food Stamp Bill,” Cotton called it) and against disaster relief (“I don’t think Arkansas needs to bail out the northeast,” he said when he voted against the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Bill). He voted for the Republican Study Committee Budget—sort of a Paul Ryan Budget on steroids that would eventually raise to 70 the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare—and during the shutdown fight last year, he voted against the omnibus appropriations bill that kept the government running. During the debate over raising the debt ceiling, he called a potential national default “short-term market corrections,” saying, “I’d like to take the medicine now."

Douthat’s framework raises the question of whether Cotton would be too conservative for the GOP primary. For someone that far right to win the nomination, Douthat writes, a candidate would need to capture “secular conservatives plus religious conservatives to start, and then just enough moderate conservatives to win.” A candidate would have to present himself as palatable and electable, persuade donors that he was a winner, and broaden his appeal.

This would almost certainly be an easier path for Cotton than for, say, Ted Cruz, who has led noisy tactical grandstanding and public fights with GOP leadership, making enemies among Republican elites. One of the intriguing Senate subplots this year will be where Cotton positions himself in the GOP's intraparty squabbles over tactics, particularly with respect to Cruz, a far-right fellow traveler who could become a national political rival.

Make no mistake, Cotton is a rigid ideologue. But while his votes may track with a flamethrower like Cruz, Cotton’s mannered, upright style contrasts with the bombastic figures who might excite the base while putting off moderates. Cotton votes with the “hell-no caucus,” but his public persona is more like “No, sir.” His cheers from the Tea Party and the near-perfect scorecard from Heritage haven’t hurt his standing among the Republican establishment and moderate conservatives who regard him as a star in the making. He’s “the last, best hope for GOP hawks,” as Politico put it when Cotton first eyed a Senate run. Cotton’s neocon cred, along with that biography Republican consultant Ralph Reed deemed “out of central casting,” gets him entrée to many establishment circles beyond the reach of Tea Party firebrands. In a GOP primary, he could rally the base without positioning himself as an insurgent in a Cruz mold.

On national security, Cotton is radically different from another Tea Party favorite, Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator hopes to reorient GOP foreign policy, arguing for less intervention, more diplomacy, more congressional oversight, more stringent legal limits on surveillance and drone strikes, and ultimately a reduction in spending. Cotton, by contrast, has been called the “party’s most aggressive next-generation advocate for military action overseas.” For Cotton, the Iraq War was a “just and noble war”; on foreign policy, he has said, “George Bush largely did have it right.” Cotton argues for an aggressive, interventionist military posture abroad, more defense spending, and an executive branch empowered on matters of national security. Pick a topic—Syria, Iran, Russia, ISIS, drones, NSA snooping—and Cotton can be found at the hawkish outer edge of the debate, demanding a continuation or escalation of the Cheney line more consistently and vociferously than nearly any of his peers. (During his senate campaign, he told a tele-townhall that ISIS and Mexican drug cartels joining forces to attack Arkansas was “an urgent problem.")

Paul and Cotton, in other words, are heading for a showdown. Zack Beauchamp at Vox called it the battle for “the GOP’s foreign policy soul.” Paul’s clever gambit has been to frame his critique of neoconservatives as an attack on Obama, hoping to woo Tea Party support. Cotton, unimpeachably right-wing on every issue, doesn't have to angle for credibility with Tea Party voters in the "soul" fight. (Cotton was even willing to risk backing Obama to advance the neocon position on Syria.) Moreover, Cotton hasn’t been shy about using his recent military experience as a trump card when arguing to continuously ratchet up the War on Terror.

Any discussion of a primary that could draw a dozen candidates is necessarily an oversimplification. (Don’t forget Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum.) Pragmatic GOP voters, or what’s left of them, may decide a national general-election campaign would bring Cotton's weaknesses to the fore. His public persona can be awkward or stiff (“I’m warm, dammit,” he once joked to Politico) and his adherence to talking points can veer toward the robotic. Plus, Democratic strategists would have no trouble portraying Cotton's voting record as extreme.

But Cotton would scramble a GOP primary in unpredictable ways. Stylistically he would be an elite/establishment Republican; he would bow to no one in military enthusiasm and dedication to Tea Party economics; he would pass muster with religious conservatives. If he were to captivate the foreign policy hardliners and the anti-food stamp spendthrifts, and woo Republican kingmakers to help him in the invisible primary, he might peel off moderates who smell a winner.

A Cotton run would ignite two big questions. Will the GOP remain a party of bellicose hawks? And is the party ready to put a candidate who fully champions Tea Party domestic policies on top of the ticket? He may be a long shot to run in 2016, but an eventual run for higher office seems inevitable. He has been training for the role of picture-perfect conservative. If GOP voters decide to turn to the bench early, they may start clamoring for young Tom Cotton.