© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton pauses during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Carolyn Kaster/AP

How Tom Cotton Pissed Off Democrats and Won Friends in the GOP

Tom Cotton’s politics have remained remarkably consistent during a period of upheaval in the GOP. Somehow, he’s floated above the controversy and hypocrisy to position himself as a power player.

Sen. Tom Cotton pauses during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Before Donald Trump’s ride down a golden escalator upended the Republican Party, Tom Cotton was the future of the GOP. In many ways, he still is.

Back in 2015, the thirtysomething Army veteran was the one to watch in his freshman Senate class. He was dubbed an up-and-coming “influence” in his party, “a conservative superstar.”

Today, the Republican Party is almost unrecognizable. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah is a political pariah. The Reagan Doctrine sits in the dustbin of history in favor of so-called “America First” sensibilities. The once anti-establishment agitators are now the party’s mainstream.

But for all that change, Cotton has remained pretty much the same. He’s still a hard-liner on spending, immigration and criminal justice. He’s still a culture warrior. And he’s still a hawk on national security.

Most importantly, he’s still on Trump’s shortlist for vice president.

Whether he gets the nod for VP — he’s a long shot — Cotton’s name remains at the tip of his party’s tongue as a future power broker. His presence on the shortlist is proof of his importance for someone who has had remarkably consistent politics during a period of political upheaval.

“I don’t see a different Tom Cotton today than I did five years or 10 years ago,” veteran Arkansas commentator Roby Brock told NOTUS.

“I find that he is able to wade in your establishment Republican circles pretty comfortably,” Brock continued. “And he also can wade in the newer Trump, MAGA patriot kind of circles.”

Donald Trump, Tom Cotton, David Perdue
President Donald Trump, flanked by Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. David Perdue, speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Evan Vucci/AP

In a GOP divided between those with Trump and those against him, Cotton’s ability to sit in both camps — and catch hardly any blowback from either — is rare. He’s recognized as an ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, helping him usher Ukraine aid through the chamber despite serious pushback from Trump. But he’s also considered one of the most faithful Republicans to the MAGA base.

Precisely what Cotton’s endgame is remains unclear. Just two years ago, Cotton refused to rule out his own presidential campaign, a potential sign he may run in the future. But for now, he’s rumored to be a front-runner for a top post in a future Trump administration. He’s a confirmable pick for secretary of Defense or State — or almost any other position he and Trump could agree on.

At the same time, he’s also waging a dark horse campaign for the No. 3 job in Senate GOP leadership against Sen. Joni Ernst, the chair of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Senate Republicans don’t know what their peer from Arkansas wants, but it’s clear they’re gung ho about it — whatever it is.

Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a leader on Ukraine aid and colleague on the Armed Services Committee, called Cotton an “important” advocate for military funding. He said that Cotton would be a “good fit” in the Trump administration and that he “always does his homework.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, MAGA standard-bearer Sen. Josh Hawley told NOTUS he’s also all-in on Cotton, even if they disagree on Ukraine.

“We’re probably not perfectly aligned on foreign policy,” Hawley said, embracing the art of the understatement. But Hawley sang Cotton’s praises, calling him a “capable guy” who’s earned his endorsement for Senate leadership against Ernst.

“He’ll be an asset wherever he goes,” Hawley said.

Mollifying all corners of the Republican conference is no easy feat, especially given that Cotton has hardly moderated his policy positions or rhetoric.

During a recent interview, CNN anchor Jake Tapper pressed Cotton about his leniency on those who participated on Jan. 6, considering his calls to crack down on the “hooligans” protesting the war in Gaza. Without a hint of hypocrisy, Cotton squared Trump saying he would “consider” pardoning all of the Jan. 6 rioters — “because the Biden administration stretched the law beyond reasonable bounds to go after some of the people who were not even in the Capitol, but near the Capitol,” in Cotton’s words — with the treatment of “violent, pro-Hamas protesters you see outside the White House.”

And when Tapper pressed Cotton on that “different standard,” he argued it was the Biden administration applying a different standard to the people who marched on the Capitol with the people “occupying” college campuses.

Tapper also called Cotton out for saying Trump would accept the election results in 2020 and peppered him with questions about Trump’s resistance to Ukraine aid. But the senator navigated the cable news land mines each time, going after Democrats for their shortcomings rather than calling out his own party.

“I’ve noticed that Vladimir Putin only invades Ukraine when Democrats are president,” Cotton said.

Cotton is perhaps best known for a New York Times op-ed in 2020 that urged the military to “send in the troops” against Black Lives Matter protesters. When there was a huge internal backlash at the paper over uncritically lending a microphone to Cotton’s argument, the senator took a victory lap. The freak-out seemed to be exactly what he wanted.

Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley
Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. Josh Hawley listen during a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing. Andrew Harnik/AP

Part of Cotton’s ability to remain in the GOP’s good graces seems to be a result of his unique talent in triggering the left — an increasingly important skill in the modern Republican Party. And part of his ability to keep his standing with Trump seems to be his unflappability when the media calls him out for nakedly partisan and hypocritical actions — a skill Trump has also honed.

“He’s very thoughtful, very strategic,” Arkansas Republican strategist Robert Coons said of Cotton. “Doesn’t make a lot of moves that are emotional.”

Where some Republicans hurt their standing in Trumpworld by supporting Ukraine funding, Cotton “charted a course that I think is very defendable on that issue in particular,” Coons said, noting that he did it “in a way that it hasn’t drawn the ire of a Truth Social message.”

That’s not to say Cotton hasn’t faced backlash from the MAGA base. Just this month, a local Arkansas GOP leader formally declared he had “no confidence” in the senator for backing aid to Ukraine. But that seems to be the minority opinion of Cotton in the GOP.

Cotton and his office weren’t keen to shed light on how the senator has managed to thread the needle. His office didn’t respond to multiple interview requests. When approached in the Senate basement about his relationship with Trumpworld, Cotton gave NOTUS a “no comment,” told this reporter to “have a good day” and kept on walking.

In the Senate, Cotton has kept his options open, even at the expense of angering his colleagues. Ernst — who is the next in line for conference chair and has reportedly babysat for Cotton’s kids — was none too pleased when Cotton leapfrogged into the race without so much as a courtesy call.

“I’m not sure if he’s running for conference chair or a position in the administration,” Ernst told NOTUS last week. And while her frustration was evident, she still called Cotton “a brilliant man.”

Not every GOP colleague is totally taken with Cotton. Sen. Mike Braun — a conservative running for Indiana governor — suggested he’d prefer someone else for vice president.

“I view somebody like a J.D. Vance, that may come from a different part of the new Republican Party, as being someone that may line up with where we’re headed in the future,” Braun said.

But if the Senate GOP is a microcosm for his standing within the party, Cotton is in solid shape. While some lawmakers were coy about who they support for leadership — several noted that if Cotton did move to the executive branch, he would be disqualified — they extolled Cotton’s virtues.

Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana called him a “rock star.” Candidate for GOP leader, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, called Cotton a “good choice” in a Trump administration. And his counterpart in the Arkansas delegation, Sen. John Boozman, is supporting him in whatever his next move may be.

Boozman said he thought Cotton had “an opportunity” in the Trump White House but was also clear he’d support his Senate colleague if he chose to stay and go for leadership.

“I don’t have to think about that,” Boozman told NOTUS.

Riley Rogerson is a reporter at NOTUS.