Cotton's decision to run for Senate gives GOP 'rock star' candidate in Arkansas

Rep. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) decision to run for the Senate in 2014 gives Republicans their top recruit in a state central to the GOP’s hopes of winning control of Congress’s upper chamber.

The freshman congressman and Army veteran has long been expected to run for the seat, and sources confirmed Wednesday he plans a formal announcement next week.

Cotton, 36, brings some strong assets to the race. He has close ties to both the Tea Party movement and the establishment wing of the GOP. A former Army Ranger, Cotton served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) is viewed as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for reelection. Arkansas has shifted sharply toward Republicans in recent years, and President Obama is deeply unpopular in the state.

The GOP will likely need to win six seats for Senate control — pending an expected Democratic win in New Jersey’s special Senate election this October — and is favored to win three open seats.

Pryor is one of four incumbent Democrats the GOP is optimistic it can knock off to gain control.

Arkansas Republicans were thrilled about Cotton’s impending entry into the race.

"He's an outstanding candidate with all the tools necessary to beat an incumbent senator. I've anticipated for a long time that he would do this, and I believe he'll be the next senator from Arkansas," said one senior Arkansas Republican lawmaker, who asked to speak on background because Cotton has yet to make his decision public.

Cotton's spokeswoman, Caroline Rabbitt, said the congressman has scheduled an event to announce his plans next Tuesday in his hometown of Dardanelle, Ark.

"Tom is inviting his hometown and all who have supported him along the way to hear about his fight to represent Arkansas's values in Washington, D.C. He looks forward to sharing his plan to continue that fight in the coming year," said Rabbitt.

Pryor has a big fundraising edge to start the race, with almost $4 million in the bank. But Cotton has more than $1 million and is likely to have no problem with fundraising.

“There's no doubt he's done what needs to be done to lay the groundwork for an announcement … He's off to a good start,” said Arkansas-based GOP strategist Alice Stewart. “He's been someone we've all been talking about here for a long time and is the front-runner in terms of having the financial backing, the grassroots people, the party support and the authority to do the job. He's the best man for this.”

Cotton will be aided by outside conservative groups — the Tea Party-affiliated Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund — that are already spending heavily against Pryor.

Shortly after news of Cotton’s decision broke on Wednesday, the establishment-oriented American Crossroads issued a release promising to help him in the race.

“One of the weakest Democrats in the Senate this cycle is now facing potentially the strongest Republican challenger of the cycle. Representative Cotton is a conservative leader and rock star candidate,” said Crossroads President Steven Law.

“Arkansas is now one of the very top pickup opportunities for Republicans this cycle and we are excited to get engaged in the race on behalf of Rep. Tom Cotton.”

Democrats didn't take long to blast the freshman lawmaker, casting him as an extremist who voted against the Violence Against Women Act and legislation to keep student loan rates low.

"Instead of putting Arkansas first, he has put his own political career ahead of the people of Arkansas and sided with Washington insiders and special interests," Jeff Weaver, Pryor's campaign manager, said in a statement.   

National Democrats sounded a similar note.

“There are a number of Washington groups that were instrumental in recruiting Tom Cotton into this race and I think they're going to regret recruiting somebody so ideological who was just elected last year and already thinks he deserves a promotion,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters Wednesday afternoon. 

This story was first posted at 11:17 a.m. and has been updated.