If Ted Cruz falls short, will Tom Cotton try to take his mantle? | Arkansas Blog

Monday, January 25, 2016

If Ted Cruz falls short, will Tom Cotton try to take his mantle?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 25, 2016 at 4:49 PM

CRUZ 2.0? If Tom Cotton could equal Ted Cruz's Tea Party cred without Cruz's baggage, he could be a formidable candidate in the GOP primaries come 2020 or 2024.
  • CRUZ 2.0? If Tom Cotton could equal Ted Cruz's Tea Party cred without Cruz's baggage, he could be a formidable candidate in the GOP primaries come 2020 or 2024.
Recommended reading: this long piece on Sen. Ted Cruz from the Atlantic's Molly Ball does a nice job of describing Cruz's strategy of trying to lock up the True Conservative wing of the Republican base as a means of securing the GOP nomination. The Republican establishment — or at least his fellow GOP lawmakers — absolutely can't stand him. But as Ball explains, Cruz thinks that's a feature, not a bug. His core of supporters hate the people who hate Ted Cruz! 

The question now is whether there are limits to how far you can go despite being so actively loathed by the major players in the Republican party. Will it hurt Cruz, for example, that Gov. Terry Branstad, officially neutral, has gone out of his way to tell Iowans not to vote for Cruz? Or that party elders like Bob Dole are out there saying that even Trump is better than Cruz? We'll see. 

But Ball's article had me thinking of another brash senator she did a profile on, our own Sen. Tom Cotton. Like Cruz, Cotton bucks the establishment to make sure that no one is to his right. He always votes with the rump group of Tea Party Republicans, even in defiance of GOP leadership. (The word "establishment" is tricky here; like Cruz, Cotton is popular with the Republican donor class — both were propelled to office by the Club for Growth, for example.) He remains a True Conservative even when it's politically risky (raising the retirement age to 70, voting against disaster relief, voting against the Farm Bill, etc.). Tactically, he's just as willing to go all-in on shutdown or default gamesmanship as Cruz (of a potentially catastrophic default scenario, Cotton said, "I'd like to take the medicine now"). Could Cotton be Ted Cruz 2.0? He has cited Cruz as a role model of sorts in the past and NBC News reported that when Cotton was in the House he kept a photo of himself with Cruz in his Congressional office. 

The difference between Cotton and Cruz is that Cotton simply isn't as hated by the "establishment" in the way that Cruz is. Cotton gets along with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, while Cruz called McConnell a liar on the Senate floor. If the reporting on Cruz is accurate, the overwhelming majority of people across the political spectrum who meet him personally or work with him find him irritating and do not like him. Maybe that's fair or maybe it's not, but for whatever reason, even though their tactics and votes are more or less the same, Republican lawmakers and establishment types seem to like Cotton okay (or love him!) whereas they think Cruz is a lying, self-aggrandizing jerk.  I'm guessing the public personas exacerbate the issue — Cruz is cartoonishly smarmy, Cotton is robotic and disciplined. The other big difference: while Cruz has occasionally flirted with the libertarian foreign policy wing of the GOP, Cotton is an unreconstructed neoconservative who pooh-poohs diplomacy and civil liberties and cheerleads war and neocon adventuring every chance he gets. The neocon cred gives Cotton an entree into some establishment circles that might otherwise be wary of the Tea Party. It's hard to say just how that would play out in a primary but it's worth noting that Cruz has at least rhetorically moved in the direction of bellicose hawkish bluster — and Cotton is skilled at using his military background to make his case to GOP base voters. 

All of that's to say, I'd wager that Cotton is watching this primary closely and wondering whether he might be able to build on what Cruz started, in 2020 or 2024. Back in March, a National Review writer wrote that Cruz was a longshot for the nomination but he "will easily get elected President of Conservative America"; another National Review writer wrote that "nobody can out-conservative Ted Cruz." At this point, it's looking more plausible than anyone expected that "President of Conservative America" is good enough for the GOP nomination. Who knows what will happen with the Trump wild card, but Cruz has made a strong case this year that there's a decent path to winning Republican primaries simply from being the guy that serves up the strongest Tea.

Nobody can out-conservative Tom Cotton either. If Cruz falls short because he made too many enemies in the party establishment, Cotton will be waiting in the wings — carrying all of the Tea Party bona fides but without all of the baggage. 

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