It was 85 degrees and humid at the Fourth of July picnic in Corning, just south of the Missouri border. Tom Cotton stood by the stage in Corning's Wynn Park, waiting his turn to give a short speech. Dressed in khakis and a crisp, light blue button-up, sleeves rolled up slightly, Cotton bounced gently on his heels, taking a moment to himself before the hobnobbing to come.
Corning's population is a little more than 3,000, but on the Fourth it's probably five times that, as people from all over the county and beyond pour in for the festivities: a parade, carnival rides, country music, $2 hot dogs, a beauty pageant, fireworks. Oh, and politics. In election years, candidates from both parties, for everything from governor to dogcatcher, show up to make their pitch and glad-hand.
This is the day-to-day grind of a politician on the trail, "gripping and grinning" as the campaign consultants say. In a small, rural state like Arkansas, as the prevailing wisdom goes, this kind of retail politics still matters. The Corning picnic is part of the circuit, which includes the Coon Supper in Gillett, the Oyster Supper in Slovak, the Chicken Fry in Mount Nebo and the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival. (Cotton skipped this last one to attend a closed-door seminar with numerous billionaire donors and GOP elites in California, hosted by the Koch brothers. According to a report in The Nation, the Kochs served "oven roasted Angus natural filet mignon served in a fresh green peppercorn sauce," which sounds a little better than pink tomatoes, but Cotton's political opponents have attacked his choice as out of touch with Arkansas.)
Cotton, 37, is running for Senate, challenging incumbent Mark Pryor, and on paper he should be winning handily. He's running in an off-year election with an electorate likely favoring Republicans, in a state trending dead red. President Obama's approval ratings in Arkansas are in the low 30s. Pryor is the last Democrat in the state's congressional delegation; former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was trounced in 2010 by more than 20 points. And then there's Cotton's resume: Harvard undergrad, Harvard law, Army Ranger who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last year, the national media had declared Pryor the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate, a "dead man walking." Instead, with the election just four months away, the polls seem to indicate a tight race. The early prognosticators may have underestimated the Pryor brand in Arkansas, but with a pickup for Republicans now in some doubt, grumblings have emerged about Cotton himself, who had been considered a rising political superstar in the Republican ranks. "What's wrong with Tom Cotton?" asked a recent U.S. News & World Report article; a writer at The American Conservative followed up by blogging that the Cotton campaign was "flailing."
The assembled crowd in Corning waved political novelty fans ("I'm a FAN of Pryor") to keep cool. "Pryor's done Arkansas really good for a lot of years," one Pryor fan, Jerry Ladd of Corning, told me. "I don't think Obama's done good this year, or the last four years." But that wouldn't stop Ladd, who works for the Highway and Transportation Department, from voting for Pryor, he said. "He's helped Social Security, trying to keep it where it is. If you're the workingman and woman out there, when you get in your late 50s and 60s, your old body's not the same as it was. So you need help. That's why I really like Pryor. He's a family politician who has helped the state of Arkansas. I'll vote for Democrat or Republican — anybody that'll help the state of Arkansas and help me."
Paragould truck driver Michael Sanders said he was planning to support Cotton. "We definitely need a freaking change," he said. "From Biblical to what's actually right. What's ruining this country is all the freebie stuff. I'm a taxpayer, I still work and I'm probably going to have to work until I die. I feel like Mark Pryor's sold us out, supporting everything Obama goes for."
Obama, Obama, Obama. Republicans running for office in Arkansas this year are hoping that's the magic word. In particular, many Republican strategists believe that the president's signature health care law, bludgeoned to great success in Arkansas in the 2010 and 2012 elections cycles, is a political gift that will keep on giving. "Most definitely, 100 percent, it will work in 2014," GOP strategist Bill Vickery recently told Talk Business. "There are only three things for certain in life: death, taxes and the unpopularity of Obamacare in the South."
At his turn on stage in Corning, even Tim Griffin, the outgoing congressman running for lieutenant governor, vowed to continue to fight Obamacare, despite running for a state office that has nothing at all to do with the national health care law (an office so light on duties that when previous Lt. Gov. Mark Darr resigned in disgrace early this year, the state didn't bother to fill the vacancy). "My opponent [John Burkhalter] is the preferred candidate of President Obama," Griffin told the crowd with a straight face.
When Cotton's name was called, he bounded up the steps. While others walked to the middle of the stage to deliver their spiel, Cotton grabbed the microphone and took off at a trot to the front, fast enough that it appeared he might run off the edge. He held the mic close and spoke loudly, with the hard, thudding consonants of a cheerleader (or a drill sergeant).
You could hardly blame Cotton for being a little overeager. The candidate has been taking heat from the chattering classes over his skills as a retail politician. He's too cold, too stiff, too academic, too robotic, the story goes. As University of Arkansas professor and pollster Janine Parry told U.S. News & World Report, "Cotton has a reputation, bless his heart, for being a bit of a cold fish." Cotton himself joked to Politico, "I'm warm, dammit."
After his speech, Cotton began to make the rounds. He walks in big, forceful strides and speaks in a flat, facts-and-figures cadence. At 6-foot-5, he stands a head above the crowd. He's a political cartoonist's dream: angular and gangly, big ears, crew cut, a neck that seems two sizes too tall.
Cotton has an intensely formal manner, and that will probably never change, but he has steadily improved at the awkward business of making small talk with strangers. Both in Corning and other stops where I've watched him on the trail, he seemed confident and at ease in individual conversations with voters. He speaks directly, he's a patient listener and is quick to laugh.
A Cotton campaign worker told me that the criticism is the best thing that could have happened to the candidate, an extremely driven man used to willing his way to success. Cotton was a little stung by the press labeling him a subpar retail politician; now he was bound and determined to prove them wrong.
And once Cotton fixates on a goal, he is, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with. He is methodical, hyper-focused and single-minded. A meticulous perfectionist and obsessive worker. Always has been. Surely his experience in the Army shaped him, but old friends say he already had a demeanor well suited to the military. If Bill Clinton — a politician who made a big impression on Cotton when he was growing up — was born with charm, Cotton was born with discipline.
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