Tom Cotton was an unknown less than two years ago as his race for the House of Representatives began, but he caught the eye of some important political backers, including the Club for Growth, and won the election. Now he's running for the Senate – and leading in a recent poll – in one of the most watched races in the country. He may represent the future of the Republican Party.
His opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, has tried to make an issue of his rapid rise, calling him too "ambitious," as if that's a bad thing. The charge is not sticking, because where Cotton has come from is as important as where he's going.
The son of a Vietnam veteran, Cotton graduated from Harvard and was a successful attorney when the attacks of Sept. 11 occurred. Compelled to respond, he joined the Army, but not as an Army lawyer. Instead, he became an infantry officer serving first in Baghdad with the 101st Airborne and then as a platoon leader for The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. Then he volunteered to go to Afghanistan.
Cotton's two combat tours were preparation for his time in Congress. He's drawn fire for some of his anti-spending, anti-debt stances, including voting against the funding bill that responded to Hurricane Sandy because it was too wasteful, and voting against the farm bill – a big one in Arkansas – because he believes it should be separated from food stamp funding.
As a new senator, Cotton would join a vanishing breed of members who have served in the military. From a peak of 81 veterans in the 100-member Senate in 1977, according to the New York Times, the number has dwindled to only 17, according to the Senate Historical Office. Of those, only three served in a combat theater: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, all in Vietnam.
That's a problem. The most important thing elected officials do is send young people to fight in a war, but few members of the Senate have any personal experience in war itself.
People may question Cotton's beliefs, but they can't question his willingness to serve. Giving up a lucrative law career in order to dodge bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan pretty much puts that question to rest.
The problems facing the United States will require tough choices and sacrifice – not just political, but personal. Going back almost two centuries, the United States has amassed a debt of more than $17 trillion. The American people have been led into this situation, and it will take leadership to get out of it.
Big-government Democrats certainly won't provide that leadership, so it's up to the Republican Party. Unfortunately, it's hard to win elections when the other side is promising government giveaways. To win, Republicans must attract candidates like Cotton who will take a stand and use their own life story as an example to others. They don't have to be combat veterans, but their lives must prove they have courage and conviction.
Picking cotton is a part of Arkansas' rural history. Now, it looks like voters are poised to pick Cotton, even though he's clearly not pandering to them. If they do this, it partly will be because he proved he could lead by serving first. And that may be the formula for winning elsewhere.
Noelle Nikpour has recently finished her first book, Branding America. She can be reached on Twittter@noellenikpour.