Tom Cotton was born in 1977 in Dardanelle, Arkansas, population less than 4,000, where his family had lived for seven generations and his parents tended a cattle farm. His father also worked for the local health department, and his mother was a schoolteacher. From an early age, it was clear that Tom was an unusual boy.
Focused, intense, and serious, Tom impressed adults with his discipline and maturity. He worked hard, studied diligently, and seemed to have little appetite for frivolity. Tall and gangly by his sophomore year, he played on the small school’s basketball team as well as a regional team, where he compensated for a lack of innate ability with a ferocious dedication to practice and became the Sand Lizards’ starting center. Early in his high-school career, friends say, he decided he would go to Harvard. He pursued the goal with single-minded passion. When he arrived in Cambridge in 1995, he was one of two rural Arkansans in his class.
Harvard opened the eyes of the idealistic young man to a new world of intellectual possibility. “At Harvard College, I discovered political philosophy as a way of life,” Cotton wrote, a few years later, on the dedication page that preceded his 92-page senior thesis on the Federalist Papers.
The thesis, whose contents are revealed here for the first time, provides a window into a political candidate who is otherwise something of a cipher. Cotton, now a 37-year-old first-term congressman challenging Arkansas’ incumbent senior senator, Mark Pryor, has largely been defined by his résumé: the impressive credentials, from Harvard to the elite echelons of the military, and the conservative philosophy, illustrated by a record of votes in Congress that puts him on the rightward extreme of today’s Republican Party. He unites the factions of the Republican civil war: The establishment loves his background, while the Tea Party loves his ideological purity. The Weekly Standard’s editor, William Kristol, considers him one of the GOP's most promising new faces; Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus calls him one of the party’s top recruits; conservative bloggers long to speed the day when he appears on a national ticket. Yet Cotton retains an air of impenetrability, a blankness that has puzzled voters and pundits alike. And his failure to dominate the race has prompted prominent Republicans to worry that something is missing.
Cotton’s thesis fills in some of these gaps—in ways some might find disturbing. A cogent and tightly argued document, it reveals the depth and intellectual roots of his reverence for American traditions. It also reveals a contrarian devotion to some ideals that seem out of date today. Cotton insists that the Founders were wise not to put too much faith in democracy, because people are inherently selfish, narrow-minded, and impulsive. He defends the idea that the country must be led by a class of intellectually superior officeholders whose ambition sets them above other men. Though Cotton acknowledges that this might seem elitist, he derides the Federalists’ modern critics as mushy-headed and naive.
“Ambition characterizes and distinguishes national officeholders from other kinds of human beings,” Cotton wrote. “Inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterizes most men, whereas ambition characterizes men who pursue and hold national office. Such men rise from the people through a process of self-selection since politics is a dirty business that discourages all but the most ambitious.”
Cotton was only summarizing the views of Publius, the collective pseudonym used by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in the Papers. His reading is neither outré nor revisionist. Yet it seems significant that, out of all the ideas outlined in the Papers, these were the concepts Cotton chose to focus on and to defend forcefully against what he saw as more modish, inclusive ideas. To be sure, these words were written when Cotton was a mere undergraduate. But when I spoke to him in Arkansas recently—sitting in his campaign RV, which is decorated with a camouflage motif and a large red, white, and blue combat-boot print, as he prepared to give a speech in Hot Springs—he was eager to defend his views of a decade and a half before. He recited many of the thesis’s contentions nearly word for word, including the quotation from Abraham Lincoln that appears on page 70: “I have no [ambition] so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow-men,” Lincoln said, “by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”
Men who seek national office, Cotton wrote in his thesis, are the most ambitious men, seeking the headiest sort of power over a nation’s commerce, finance, and affairs of state. Self-selection ensures that they have “a superior intelligence compared to the unambitious and to the lesser ambitious.” This does not necessarily mean that they are wise, he notes, but “it does imply some amount of sheer, raw brainpower. National officeholders will all possess something akin to shrewdness, cleverness, or perhaps even cunning.”
From the time he was a teenager, Cotton has been nurtured and groomed by conservative institutions—scholars, think tanks, media, and advocacy groups—to be the face of their political crusade. Pure, upright, and ideologically correct, he is their seemingly flawless mascot. (Conservatives would surely argue that a potent network consisting of regular academia and the mainstream media nurtures left-wing candidates.) And now he is finally on the cusp of achieving the platform consummate to his talents, a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Cotton is a beanpole of a man, six foot five and rail-thin, with a long face, prominent nose, and eyes that tilt down at the corners. His affect is polite and polished; since a spate of articles earlier this year speculated that he suffered from a personability deficit, observers say he has become more diligent about smiling at people, asking them questions, and lingering over handshakes. (The effort can be a little forced: One voter complained to The Arkansas Times that Cotton had introduced himself to her twice at the same event.) His stump speech is a canned recitation of policy points, delivered in a near-monotone.
Cotton’s attempts to inject levity reveal a bitingly sarcastic sense of humor. At a Lions Club meeting in Conway, a midsize town north of Little Rock, I heard him open a recent speech with a lament about his wife’s dog being insufficiently macho to serve as a campaign prop. (The dog is small, white, and fluffy, and its name is Cowboy, Cotton recounted in mock dismay.) To a voter who raised his hand to ask about the debt burden borne by future generations, Cotton retorted, “Hopefully I’ll give you a better answer this time than I did the last time,” an allusion to the fact that he’d already discussed the issue in his speech. The candidate chuckled; the voter did not. “No, it’s the same answer,” Cotton continued, repeating his earlier spiel about the need to reduce spending. “If you have to vote against legislation that might bring home the bacon, then do so,” he said.
At this appearance and others, many voters asked Cotton about his vote against $300 million in federal funding for the Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. The vote had been featured in a dramatic recent Democratic commercial that said his priorities were “not with Arkansas children.” Cotton laughed it off and told them not to believe those nasty negative ads. “The legislation had no specific funding” for Arkansas, he said, and “I don’t support giving the president more leeway.” He added, “I ultimately did support later versions of the legislation, and I fully support Children’s Hospital, of course. Next week, when you hear I don’t support puppies, don’t believe that either.” But as John Brummett, the left-leaning columnist for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has pointed out, Cotton’s “yes” votes were on meaningless, doomed budget bills; the one time the hospital appropriation was specifically at stake, Cotton voted against it. Every other Republican in the Arkansas congressional delegation voted in favor of the funding. “He voted against money for the hospital but won’t admit it,” Brummett wrote, in a column that was pressed into my hand by an 89-year-old Conway Lions Club member who urged me to read it. “Thus he obfuscates in the style of any other politician."
It is not the only time Cotton has outdone even other Republicans with his conservative absolutism. He was the only Arkansas Republican to vote twice against the farm bill and five times against disaster-aid funding—two initiatives that national conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation see as symptoms of big government, but that many rural Southerners rely on heavily. Cotton also was the only Arkansan to vote for a budget drafted by the Republican Study Committee that would slash spending, voucherize Medicare, and raise the eligibility age for Social Security to 70.
The day after his speech in Conway, I spoke to Cotton in Hot Springs. I asked him whether it was important to stand on principle even when doing so might be unpopular. “I’ll tell you the truth, even in an election year, and that’s what people are ready for,” he said. “They don’t want traditional politicians like Mark Pryor, who’ve been hanging around for 24 years, who trim and hedge and won’t level with you.” If that was the case, I asked, why not own the unpopular votes—against the hospital funding, or the farm bill, or disaster relief—as necessary medicine for an out-of-control federal budget?
“Look at what I’ve said about disaster relief,” Cotton replied. “I support the traditional disaster-relief program FEMA administers. It is done by neutral, transparent criteria, and when communities like Vilonia or Mayflower are hit by a tornado, they can apply and receive that assistance.” Sixteen people were killed and the two towns were nearly destroyed by a tornado in April of this year. Mayflower’s mayor subsequently criticized Cotton for his disaster-aid votes. But, Cotton continued, “What I don’t support is a bill like Hurricane Sandy [relief] that is rushed through, that has $60 billion in new spending, much of which is not related to the disaster at all.” Cotton’s explanation sounded sensible enough; many House Republicans opposed the Sandy bill for similar reasons. Yet Cotton also voted against one bill that contained nothing but funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Cotton's campaign said he opposed that bill because the spending in it was not offset by budget cuts elsewhere.)
In elections all over the country this year, a markedly more ideological class of Republican candidates, urged on by conservative donors and advocacy groups, promises to transform the Senate if elected. Many are nominees in red states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Their candidacies pose a test to the zeal for extreme purity that has so consumed the Republican Party in recent years: Will it finally go too far, even for Republican voters? Recent polls have shown Cotton pulling ahead of Pryor. Yet the fact that Cotton—the man with the golden résumé, running in a deep-red state, with the collective hopes of the American right on his shoulders, against an amiable, rather bland Democrat of no particular distinction—is not running away with the contest has stoked a perception that he is underperforming. By this point four years ago, Arkansas’ last incumbent Democratic senator to seek reelection, Blanche Lincoln, was behind by 20 points.
Cotton’s legislative record may cost him votes: It is the principal subject of the millions of dollars in television advertisements his opponent and Democratic groups are airing against him. But it is in keeping with the rigidly idealistic persona, and the starkly moralistic worldview, he has exhibited since he was an undergraduate. It is a harsh, unyielding, judgmental political philosophy, one that makes little allowance for compassion or human weakness. “I don’t think Arkansas needs to bail out the Northeast,” Cotton once said of his vote against the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. He has dismissed the potential for default if the debt ceiling was not raised as a desirable “short-term market correction,” and said food stamps should be cut because too many recipients live high on the hog: “They have steak in their basket, and they have a brand-new iPhone, and they have a brand-new SUV.”
I asked Cotton about his senior thesis and whether he thought humans were too selfish by nature to make good collective decisions. “We’re all sinners, certainly,” he said. “We all fall short of perfection. Part of our constitutional form of government is that we have checks and balances, so we don’t have simple majority rule.” After quoting Margaret Thatcher and praising the Founders, he added, “The Constitution has proven, over 230 years, to be the best form of government. That’s why we need to respect our constitution, unlike Barack Obama and Mark Pryor, who just runs roughshod over it.” When I asked if he still supported the notion that elected officials tend to be superior to the people they govern, he joked, “You just have to look around Congress to realize that’s not always the case.” But he stood by the view expressed in the thesis.
Tom Cotton barely spoke until he was three years old, his older sister, Sarah Cotton Patterson, told me. Even after that, he had a speech impediment so severe that few could make out what he was saying. “I could understand him, but most others could not,” Patterson told me. “He’d say something and I translated, and people would bend down to hear it.” Cotton was in intensive speech therapy through much of elementary school.
Perhaps as a result of these early experiences, Patterson said, Cotton was a bookish, stoic, inward-directed boy, determined to overcome whatever obstacle he faced. It’s not clear how his conservative orientation developed, but it, too, came to him in boyhood. He did not inherit his politics from his parents like most people do: Len and Avis Cotton are longtime Democrats who supported Bill Clinton as their governor and president. (“They are genuine, honest, hardworking people—big supporters of mine!” Arkansas’ popular two-term Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, told me with some glee.) Yet Cotton told me it was the Clinton presidency, during his high-school years, that turned him against liberalism—specifically “the tax increases that passed in the summer and fall of 1993, and also cutting and running from Mogadishu after the battle of Mogadishu.” Whatever the genesis, by the time he got to Harvard, Cotton’s political compass was firmly set. “It may be that the only way to get through Harvard as a conservative is to show up as one,” he told me.
Harvard’s conservative-leaning undergraduates tend to gravitate to the lectures and seminars taught by Harvey Mansfield, one of the few conservatives on the faculty. The author of influential books on Burke, Tocqueville, Machiavelli, and Jefferson, Mansfield is an ardent traditionalist who advocates for the Western canon and against multiculturalism and affirmative action. (Liberals particularly disliked his 2006 book Manliness, an apologia for traditional gender roles.) The New York Times once called Mansfield “a kind of Father Confessor to students of politics for nearly four decades” who had “quietly shaped the thinking of a generation of conservative writers, academics and public figures.” Cotton—"this tall guy from Arkansas”—made an impression on Mansfield, he told me recently. “He was very smart, but not a future professor—a man of action,” Mansfield recalled. “He was always very political, wanting to be engaged.”
With Mansfield’s help, Cotton sought out other conservative mentors at Harvard, including Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, a husband-and-wife team of conservative legal scholars whom Cotton assisted with research. “Harvard is full of operators,” Abigail Thernstrom told me recently. “One of my students was supposed to have written a thesis for me, but he managed to wriggle out of the requirement. That was Lloyd Blankfein,” the Goldman Sachs CEO, who graduated in 1975. Thernstrom continued, “Tom was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He wanted to do things right.”
In 1997, the Thernstroms published America in Black and White, a sweeping critique of affirmative action and other race-based policies. That fall, Cotton reviewed the book glowingly for Harvard’s conservative magazine, the Salient, writing that “race-hustling charlatans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton” had a vested interest in obscuring the great progress African Americans had already made. “If race relations are better now than at any time in our history and would almost certainly improve if we stopped emphasizing race in our public life,” Cotton wrote, “what would the self-appointed ‘civil rights leaders’ have to do with themselves?” Abigail Thernstrom would go on to serve as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under George W. Bush.
The summer before his final undergraduate year at Harvard, Cotton was admitted to the Publius Fellowship, a prestigious summer program for undergraduates at the Claremont Institute, a California-based conservative think tank known for its heady intellectualism and insistence on conservative absolutism. Admirers include Clarence Thomas and Pat Sajak. The institute’s president at the time, Larry Arnn, was also from a small town in Arkansas, and he took an immediate liking to Cotton. Within 10 minutes of their meeting, Arnn guessed that Cotton was preparing to enter politics, he told me recently; Cotton seemed especially interested in tapping Arnn’s contacts back in Arkansas. Arnn now serves as the president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College and a trustee of the Heritage Foundation, the Washington-based conservative policy powerhouse. Of Cotton’s early promise, Arnn told me, “Remarkable human beings have a way of making remarkable preparation.”
After graduating from Harvard in three years, Cotton returned to Claremont to pursue a master’s degree, but abandoned it after a year, finding academic life “too sedentary.” Instead, he enrolled in Harvard Law School. On September 11, 2001, he had just begun his final year. He wanted to serve his country, but first, he had student loans to pay off. Three years later, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan intensifying, Cotton left the Washington law firm where he was working to join the Army. He did not want to be a military lawyer; he wanted to fight. He became an infantry officer. He was sent to Iraq.
Cotton was in Baghdad in 2006 when The New York Times published a report on a secret U.S. program to trace and stifle terrorist financing networks. In publishing it, the Times defied the pleas of the Bush administration, which claimed national security would be compromised. Cotton composed a letter to the Times that was thick with righteous indignation. “You may think you have done a public service,” he wrote, “but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here.” He promised to think of the Times next time he heard a roadside bomb go off, and to wonder whether it could have been prevented “had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.”
In closing, Cotton cited his Harvard Law degree, his work as clerk for a federal judge, and his service with “two Washington law firms” to support his claim that the Times had “plainly violated” espionage laws. “By the time we return home,” he wrote, “maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.”
Cotton emailed the letter to the Times, which ignored it. He also copied a prominent conservative blog run by two Minnesota lawyers, Power Line, which published it. Appearing out of nowhere with his impeccable credentials, his battlefield credibility, and his perfectly articulated rage, Lieutenant Cotton became an immediate sensation in conservative media, his letter a viral email forward. Liberals doubted he was even real (there happens to be a hobbit in Tolkien also named Tom Cotton); the myth-busting website Snopes.com posted an entry verifying that he did exist.
The letter was Cotton’s first taste of political fame. The Power Line bloggers, also Claremont Institute fellows, began corresponding with him and encouraging him to run for office. While in Iraq, Cotton also struck up a correspondence with Kristol—a fellow former student of Mansfield at Harvard—and when he was subsequently stationed at Arlington National Cemetery, in a prestigious unit called the Old Guard that oversees the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the two men met frequently over drinks and dinner at Washington’s downtown Mayflower Hotel. Kristol saw a kindred spirit in Cotton’s aggressive national-security hawkishness, and the men developed what Kristol describes as “a bond beyond pure policy.” When Cotton had finished his Army commitment and was debating a last deployment to Afghanistan, Kristol was among those he consulted. (The Weekly Standard has since become an ardent promoter of Cotton’s political career, though it is hardly an outlier in this regard: Shortly before Cotton was elected to the House, National Review published a fawning six-part series on his life and candidacy.)
Soon after Cotton left the Army, in 2009, and took a job with the management-consulting firm McKinsey, Arnn introduced him to a Hillsdale alum and former congressman named Chris Chocola, the president of the Washington-based Club for Growth. One of the most influential of the right-wing pressure groups hoping to purify the Republican Party from within, the Club advocates a staunch free-market philosophy that seeks to radically reduce the size and influence of government. Its bundled campaign donations and flights of television ads have been instrumental in shepherding candidates like Ted Cruz through tough GOP primaries. Chocola immediately recognized in Cotton a man with a bright future in national politics.
Power Line also continued to promote Cotton, and there was an attempt to draft him for Arkansas’s 2010 Senate race. Finally, in 2011, when the Democratic congressman who had represented his home district for 12 years retired, Cotton could no longer resist the pressure to enter politics. “Some of my friends who are in politics began to encourage me to run,” he would later tell the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record. The Club for Growth became the first national group to support him. Of the $2.2 million Cotton would raise for that campaign, the Club’s donors were responsible for $315,000. The collective powers of the conservative movement were ready to make Cotton their new star.
Today Cotton, in his 19 months in office, has earned a 92 percent on the Club’s scorecard. The votes that marked him an outlier in the Arkansas Republican delegation—the farm bill, disaster aid, the Children’s Hospital—were all in keeping with the Club’s austere philosophy. “If every member of Congress was like Tom Cotton, the world would be a better place,” Chocola told me approvingly. Some D.C. Republicans wish Cotton weren’t quite so pure. One GOP strategist involved in the midterm elections complained about Cotton’s failure to leap decisively ahead of Pryor, telling me, “His problem is, his voting record was scripted by the Heritage Foundation."
Scorecards like the Club’s frustrate House Speaker John Boehner, who believes that it and other pressure groups—the Heritage Foundation keeps a similar tally—encourage Republicans against constructiveness and compromise. But the groups’ tough-minded ideology has found willing acolytes in the House’s most staunchly ideological crop of members, many of them elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 that handed Republicans the House majority, and more, like Cotton, elected since. Politico last year dubbed Cotton the face of the “hell no caucus” that was making Boehner’s life difficult by refusing to entertain any inkling of gun control or immigration reform. Abigail Thernstrom worries that Cotton’s votes have hurt his popularity. “For political reasons, I would have been less principled than he has been on the farm bill,” she told me. “But he seems willing to vote his principles even when it’s not politically wise.”
Arkansas was a Democratic state for a long time, and then Barack Obama was elected. In 2012, Republicans took over both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. A congressional delegation that in 2008 consisted of five Democrats and one Republican shifted after 2012 to five Republicans and one Democrat: Pryor, whose father was a popular governor and senator, and who had no Republican opponent in his 2008 reelection. Some Arkansas Democrats believe the damage to their party will be long-lasting. “You go to liberal dinner parties in Little Rock, and you hear Democrats say this is their last stand,” Brummett, the newspaper columnist, told me. “If they lose this year, they’re done for a generation.” The only exception to the rightward march in recent years was Beebe, the Democratic governor, who won reelection by 30 points in 2010 and remains one of the country’s most popular executives. “We’ve turned pretty red,” Beebe acknowledged, leaning back in a tall leather chair behind his desk in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. “It’s all about Obama, in my opinion—this visceral opposition to him.”
I heard this loathing for Obama frequently in several days traveling around Arkansas, often from voters who described themselves as lifelong or former Democrats. Some also were unimpressed by Cotton’s credentials: “I don’t have much in common with a Harvard lawyer,” said Jill Hatcher, a 48-year-old city councilwoman from Shannon Hills who nonetheless planned to vote for him. Judy Curry, a 68-year-old hairdresser from Pine Bluff and a Democrat of long standing, recoiled as if stung when I asked if she’d voted for Obama. “Heavens no,” she said, adding, “I don’t think he’s one of us Americans.” She had voted for Pryor in the past and thought he was someone who “works for the people,” but was reconsidering based on his support for Obamacare.
Cotton’s campaign strategy seems to consist entirely of tapping this sentiment. His ads and speeches are exercises in putting “Pryor” and “Obama” in the same sentence as many times as possible; his advisers and allies believe there’s just no way Pryor can overcome the fundamental partisan dynamics in a state Mitt Romney won by 23 points. Ironically, Cotton, the candidate touted by so many conservatives as a star for his special qualities, is running the most generic possible campaign, hoping the only thing voters see when they look at him is his party affiliation.
Despite the state’s conservative turn, Beebe has been able to govern by exploiting the divisions within the Republican Party. In the statehouse, he has orchestrated a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to elect a moderate Republican speaker and marginalize the small but vocal Tea Party caucus. And he has been able to get his program largely passed—including accepting the Medicaid-expansion grant from Obamacare, a program that has insured more than 200,000 Arkansans—by the three-quarters vote required by the state constitution. The health-care vote became a rallying cry for the right, and this year, two Republican state legislators who supported it lost primaries to right-wing challengers. Beebe evinced no pity for these men, who sacrificed their political careers for a policy unpopular with their own party. “They voted the way they needed to vote,” he told me coolly.
Arkansans are conservative, Beebe said, but they are practical, not ideological, and they value a personal connection with their politicians. “Some of those pragmatic business Republicans see more advantage to Senator Pryor’s reelection than they do to an extremely, very, very conservative opponent,” he said. Pryor, when I interviewed him at a catfish fry in the tiny town of Grady, agreed with this assessment. (Cotton had appeared briefly at the event—a mainstay of the Arkansas political calendar—shaking a few hands and leaving early for a fundraiser. Pryor stayed for several hours, sweating profusely and greeting every voter like an old friend.) “I meet a lot of Republicans who say that, for one reason or another, they just can’t support him,” Pryor told me. “What they know from business is that this my-way-or-the-highway attitude my opponent has, it’s dead-end politics. What you end up with there is, you end up shutting down the government. You end up with fiscal cliffs. Businesspeople know that you’ve got to compromise and work with other people."
Yet Cotton has always had a heroic sense of himself, and his friends have little doubt he can achieve whatever he sets out to do, as he always has in the past. “I wasn’t around him every minute of his life, but he never made many poor decisions as far as I can tell,” Trent Tipton, a friend who has known Cotton since coaching him in high-school basketball, told me. “He was always very focused. He had a purpose. Early on, you could tell he was special.”
Some men, after all, are better than others. The Founders knew this, and Harvard senior Thomas B. Cotton absorbed the lesson. But the House of Representatives, the Founders believed, is no place for statesmen; it is too large, too responsive to popular pressure. In these conditions, representatives’ ambition leads them to seek “reckless, attention-getting changes in the laws” in order to distinguish themselves.
What is needed is a more refined forum for deliberation, one where terms are longer, districts are larger, and officeholders can impose their wisdom without fearing a career-ending backlash. “National officeholders have an enlarged ambition and mental acuity that distinguishes them from all other sorts of men,” Cotton wrote. And where such men belong, he argued—where they will naturally find their place—is in the U.S. Senate.