Neither can afford to be wrong. Without victory in the Razorback State, Republicans won't win back the Senate majority in 2015. Any plausible pathway to control — in which the GOP must win a net of six seats — starts with Pryor, who is regarded as the weakest incumbent on the midterm map.
It's easy to see why the 36-year-old Cotton has been the recipient of glowing coverage in the conservative media since arriving in Washington. He graduated from Harvard University in three years before returning to Cambridge, Mass., for law school. Afterward, instead of beginning a lucrative law career, Cotton enlisted in the Army and did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He won the Bronze Star and rose to the rank of captain before being discharged in 2009.
The mix of highfalutin education and military service proved a strong foundation for his political career. In 2012, he faced long odds in a Republican congressional primary against a GOP opponent who had won the party's nomination two years earlier and who carried the endorsement of former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee. Cotton overcame a 40-point deficit in early polls to win the race comfortably, thanks in part to the support he received from the well-heeled conservative group Club for Growth.
At the time, Cotton had no legislative record, but he demonstrated a rare commitment and understanding of conservative values, according to group spokesman Barney Keller.
"Over the course of a political cycle, we meet with dozens upon dozens of candidates," he said. "And when you talk to them about what they believe and why they believe it, there are a few who stand out. Tom Cotton was one of those."
Cotton's eloquence — notable enough that one GOP official compared him to a "modern-day Republican Party Bill Clinton — explains why many Arkansas Republicans are eager to elect him, believing the national party could benefit from giving him a larger platform. Talk to Cotton's friends, or to the party's activist base, and they quickly brag about the congressman's ability to defend conservative principles.
It's a skill, they say, he's learned after years of study and thought; in between his stops at Harvard, for instance, Cotton spent a year studying the Federalist Papers at Claremont Graduate University. One of his friends, campaign adviser John Burris, compared Cotton to Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist who is considered one of the leading conservative intellectuals.
"You have to have people who stand up, who are courageous; people who are not going to get lost in the sea of the U.S. Congress," said Jason Rapert, a state senator in Arkansas who considered running for Senate before Cotton expressed interest in it. "Cotton is physically a tall man, and when it comes to integrity, he's a tall man."
Despite entering office only this year, Cotton's name surfaced early on as Republicans searched for an opponent to take on Pryor. And, according to Republicans there, once the congressman expressed interest, the field cleared quickly. It didn't hurt that the Club for Growth was already airing TV ads targeting Pryor, an attempt to draw the freshman lawmaker into the race.