As Tom Cotton courts controversy, he runs unopposed in Arkansas

Senator’s critics had no opponent to give cash to after outrage over op-ed

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton has no opponent in November even as a new poll shows independent voters in Arkansas starting to break toward Democrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton has no opponent in November even as a new poll shows independent voters in Arkansas starting to break toward Democrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 22, 2020 at 10:30am

ANALYSIS — A New York Times opinion piece by Arkansas senator and presidential-candidate-in-waiting Tom Cotton advocating the use of military force to put down rioters and looters in American cities caused a meltdown on liberal social media and an uproar at the Times. In the end, editorial page editor James Bennet, the brother of former presidential candidate and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, resigned.

What did not happen: an outrage-fueled flood of campaign donations to Cotton’s Democratic opponent in this year’s Arkansas Senate race. That’s because Cotton doesn’t have a Democratic challenger. Neither does Rep. Rick Crawford, one of the four Republican House members in Arkansas.

Democrats thought they had a Senate candidate lined up, but he dropped out after the deadline had passed to put someone else on the ballot. And unlike other states where even the safest candidates seem to face perennial challengers, no other Democrat in Arkansas had filed. Indeed, other than the presidential ballot, where President Donald Trump got 97 percent against two challengers and former Vice President Joe Biden got 41 percent against 17 opponents, none of the federal offices in Arkansas’ March 3 primary was contested.

Six years ago, Cotton’s victory over Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor marked the first time since Reconstruction that the GOP held both Senate seats. Two years before that, Cotton won an open seat in the 4th District given up by Democrat Mike Ross, and the GOP has held a monopoly in the House since then. A decade ago, Rep. John Boozman, now a senator, was the only Republican in the delegation.

Nationalizing Arkansas

Southern Democrats were becoming endangered for a long time before that.

But Janine A. Parry, a University of Arkansas political scientist, said the tea party movement, the election of Barack Obama and the relaxation of campaign finance laws changed state politics. The focus on building personal connections — shaking hands and kissing babies — gave way to attacks based on talking points from cable news.

“Suddenly glossy-packaged appeals were pinning every Democrat, down to county legislators and justices of the peace, to Obamacare,” she said. “Tom Cotton skipped the Warren Pink Tomato Festival and was at a Koch brothers event in 2014. It was the full-on nationalization of Arkansas politics.”

Some of that is happening everywhere, especially as local news outlets decline. And the effect on fundraising in races that might otherwise get little attention can be profound.

During the fourth quarter of last year, as New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik grabbed the spotlight defending Trump at impeachment hearings, her reelection campaign raised $3.2 million, including $1.7 million in amounts of $200 or less. During the same period, her Democratic opponent, Tedra Cobb, raised more than $2 million, including $1.4 million in amounts of $200 or less. Cobb received more than $209,000, and Stefanik more than $403,000, in the week after Trump retweeted a video clip from a hearing with the comment, “A new Republican Star is Born. Good going, @EliseStefanik!”

Stefanik carried the 21st District with 57 percent of the vote two years ago, and the race is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. But Cobb can at least give Stefanik a challenge, and who knows what the fall will bring?

Cotton is probably safer than Stefanik, and it’s understandable why Democrats might have trouble recruiting someone to set aside their job for a year and put their family through a campaign that in all likelihood will be futile.

But the nationalization of politics also means that officials are less insulated when national public opinion turns.

Negative approval

In recent interviews, Democratic and Republican campaign consultants in Arkansas both brought up a poll conducted June 9-10 by the website Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College that showed the job approval ratings for both Trump and Cotton had gone negative. Significantly, independent voters were strongly negative, with 39 percent saying they approved of Cotton and 51 percent saying they disapproved. Trump was leading Biden, but only 47 percent to 45 percent — after winning 60 percent of the vote in 2016.

“Arkansas is not immune from some of the trends we see nationally with women and independents,” said Republican consultant Robert Coon. “Independents as a group have been an important dynamic in electing Republicans over the past decade, but they’re always a movable bunch. This is the first time I’ve seen in Arkansas the feeling of independents being a little more with the Democrats than the Republicans.”

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Democratic consultant Robert McLarty was cautious, saying he’d want to see more surveys before concluding there was an actual shift in opinion. But he believes Cotton’s op-ed had an effect.

“It’s not that voters are pro-New York Times. I think there’s a line, especially when you’re talking about the military in political terms, there’s a group of voters who get turned off,” McLarty said.

He also lamented there’s no one to put Cotton to the test this year.

“You can’t catch a fish, as they say, unless you have a line in the water. And right now Arkansas doesn’t have anybody even throwing a line out. Even if we have the right bait, are in the right spot, not even having a pole in water, takes us from having a chance to not having chance at all,” McLarty said.

Herb Jackson is CQ Roll Call’s politics editor.