What's Wrong With Tom Cotton?

Cotton comes across as wooden and academic in a state where retail politics still matter.

Rep. Tom Cotton speaks to members of the Lions Club on April 23, 2014, in Little Rock, Ark. Cotton is challenging Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in the November election.

Once a sure bet, Rep. Tom Cotton, seen here in Little Rock on April 23, has many analysts wondering if incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor will hold on to his seat.

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Republicans from Washington to Little Rock are privately distressed that Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., – a candidate once hailed as their most talented U.S. Senate recruit of the cycle – has lost his luster in his challenge to second-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

The overarching problem: While Cotton’s resume is sparkling, his persona is flat. He speaks with authority, but lacks warmth. His wooden delivery is more often academic, lacking an everyday, common touch that’s still essential in a place with slightly less than 3 million people, the smallest state in the south. His slender frame and boyish haircut makes him look even younger than his 37 years, a trait Democrats are attempting to subtly exploit as they portray Cotton as a bit too overeager as he seeks a promotion after just a single term in the House. He's a smash hit with the conservative commentariat class in Washington, but remains a largely unknown quantity to the everyday Arkansan.        

“He talks like he’s at a dinner party at Bill Kristol’s house. There’s things I like about that, but that’s not the way you want to talk when running around Little Rock,” says one Beltway Republican operative closely following the race who has become measurably less confident about Cotton’s chances. 

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Some lament, when it matters most, Cotton is not even showing up. The freshman representative missed the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival in his own district in June, a celebration attended by an estimated 30,000 that has become a marquee opportunity for political candidates to showcase their grinning, gripping and backslapping. Pryor rode in the parade, posed for pictures with ladies in tomato-cut aprons and spoke at a luncheon. When it came time for the candidates to compete in the fast-paced tomato eating contest, Cotton was nowhere to be found. Instead, The Nation reported Cotton was at a political event in California with the Koch Brothers, the libertarian-minded billionaires who have been villainized by Democrats for devoting their fortune to conservative causes and candidates.  

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., rides in the the Pink Tomato Festival parade as he campaigns in Warren, Ark., on June 14, 2014.
Sen. Mark Pryor rides in the the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival parade on June 14.

“It’s been a learning curve for Tom Cotton,” says Rex Nelson, a longtime communications consultant and writer who worked for former Gov. Mike Huckabee in the state. “He obviously is a strong intellect, somebody who can give a good speech and write a good article, but that is a different skill than the backslapping, handshaking, story swapping side of Arkansas.” 

No doubt Arkansans have been spoiled by the outsized personalities that have graced the state’s political stage during the past two decades. The Natural State, after all, is home to big name retail politicians like Bill Clinton and Huckabee – candidates who could bring down a community center with a stirring speech, a whimsical joke or even a musical performance.

“Cotton has a reputation, bless his heart, for being a bit of a cold fish,” says Janine Parry, a pollster and professor at the University of Arkansas.

This is not to say a cold fish is a dead one.

Most polling has shown an incredibly close race. Both sides now agree the campaign will likely be decided by single digits. Pryor still faces all the headwinds blowing hard into the faces of red-state Democrats. Most Arkansans prefer a senator who will serve as a check on President Barack Obama over one aligned with him.

“How does he run 20 points ahead of his president? It has seldom happened in a modern Senate election,” says a GOP strategist not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign. 

That's not entirely true. There are plenty of recent examples of candidates outpacing the top of their own ticket by double digits. In 2008, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, won re-election by outpacing the GOP presidential nominee by 21 points. 

[WHISPERS: Democrats Try to Cancel Cotton's Country Concert]

In 2012, then Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp paced 12 points ahead of Obama in North Dakota to eek out a Senate win in the biggest upset of the night. Pryor will need to best that gaping spread to survive.

Even so, there’s an unmistakable sense that Pryor has a renewed opportunity to hold on to his seat – if only by the skin of his teeth – simply because of Cotton’s failure to connect.

“Pryor was a dead man walking three months ago,” conceded a Democratic consultant in Washington. “But the momentum has shifted and it speaks more to Cotton’s weakness as a candidate than what Pryor’s done. It’s more about Cotton.”