By Cameron Joseph - 05/29/13 09:00 AM EDT
Republicans are intensifying a campaign to persuade Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to run for the Senate, believing the rookie congressman represents the GOP’s best chance of defeating Sen. Mark Pryor (D).
Cotton has so far steadfastly refused to discuss a Senate run publicly, but many Republicans expect him to take the plunge.
“He’s an impressive guy, and there are a lot of people who are putting a lot of pressure on him to run,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) told The Hill.
Cotton, 36, is beloved by both national security conservatives and fiscal-focused Tea Party activists.
Cotton’s popularity stems from his profile — he’s an Army veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and an eloquent Harvard-trained lawyer.
In a state with many young GOP politicians but few seasoned politicians, he stands out as the party’s strongest option, say party activists.
“Cotton is one of those rare candidates who unites all aspects of the Republican Party,” said one national GOP strategist.
Pryor didn’t face a GOP challenger in 2008, but is considered among the most vulnerable incumbent senators facing reelection in 2014.
Republicans plan to tie Pryor to President Obama, hammering him for voting for the 2009 economic stimulus package and the 2010 healthcare law.
Arkansas has been trending to the right in the last decade, adding to Pryor’s challenge.
Obama took just 37 percent of vote there in 2012 — down from the 46 percent Al Gore won in 2000 — and Pryor is the only Democrat left in a congressional delegation that had just one Republican as recently as 2010.
“I think Cotton is the only one who can go at it in a serious way. All of his federal money will transfer, and he’s being very aggressive on the fundraising front. He’s well-positioned,” said one GOP lawmaker who’s been encouraging Cotton to run.
“He doesn’t have the personal obligations some other folks have in terms of wife and kids.”
The lawmaker said Cotton was likely to run, and that he believed the decision would come in late summer.
“I think he’ll finalize everything this summer and announce sometime late in the summer,” he said.
Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb told The Hill that “anyone that’s tuned into politics foresees a matchup” between Cotton and Pryor.
“Clearly, Tom has tremendous educational credentials: His service in the military, his background growing up in rural Arkansas, and his rise to prominence make him, if not the strongest, certainly one of the strongest candidates to run against Mark Pryor,” Webb said.
Cotton has built a national profile since winning his House seat.
He’s become a regular on the Sunday morning talk shows and made some high-profile appearances, including one at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he argued for a strong interventionist foreign policy.
But Cotton has been cautious about openly discussing a Senate bid after winning his seat in Congress only a few months ago.
“He’s honored by the encouragement, but he’s still focused on his work in the House,” said Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Rabbitt, who disputed that he had a time frame for deciding on the race.
“There’ll be a time for politics down the line, but not right now.”
Cotton’s decision-making timeline could affect the race.
He’s a battle-tested fundraiser and brought in more than a half-million dollars in the first fundraising quarter. But he could raise even larger numbers as a Senate candidate.
That fundraising prowess would be essential: Pryor has $3.4 million on hand for his reelection, and whoever runs against him will be playing catch up.
While Cotton is expected to run, the GOP could be left in a tough spot if he ultimately takes a pass.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) has also expressed interest in the race, but few expect him to run unless Cotton chooses not to mount a Senate campaign.
Womack is an able politician but doesn’t have the star power Cotton does and could struggle to match Pryor on the fundraising front.
If Cotton runs, he has some key allies that could help him close the fundraising gap.
One of his biggest fans is Bill Kristol, the powerful editor of the conservative Weekly Standard.
Kristol compared Cotton’s political talents to former President Clinton’s and floated him as a future presidential prospect as early as last May.
Even before Cotton won his House seat last year, Kristol’s magazine wrote that one of Cotton’s tough future decisions would be about the 2014 race.
Another big backer: The Club for Growth.
The deep-pocketed, fiscally conservative group spent heavily to help Cotton win his primary in 2012 and has already been on the air this year with commercials ripping Pryor’s record.
Those ads were seen by many as a high-profile signal to Cotton that the group would help him if he decides to run.
The Senate Conservatives Fund has also been on the air attacking Pryor.
All of that shows Cotton will have strong support from both establishment Republicans and insurgent groups should he choose to run.
“The Club for Growth PAC strongly supported Tom Cotton when he ran, and so far he’s been every bit the pro-growth champion we thought he would be,” said Club spokesman Barney Keller.
“If he were to run for the Senate, we’d take a strong look at endorsing his candidacy.”