Can a freshman congressman instantly become a favorite to snatch a U.S. Senate seat after barely a month in the House of Representatives? According to some political experts, the answer could be yes when it comes to Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

The 2012 election was, in many ways, depressing for conservatives. However, one oft-overlooked fact about that election is that aside from sweeping Barack Obama back into power, it also swept an encouraging number of conservative rising stars into power for the first time. Cotton, who managed to turn Arkansas’ House delegation into a solid Republican sweep, is probably the best kept secret of 2012′s new Republican blood, though his status as the dark horse to end all dark horses can’t be expected to last for long, given the amount of publicity Cotton has been getting. In fact, despite barely being in office for a month, Cotton may have already achieved frontrunner status in the 2014 race to succeed Arkansas’s senior senator.

Republican Rep. Tom Cotton Could Be First in Line to Unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas

Credit: AP

For those who are familiar with his record, it shouldn’t be surprising that Cotton’s been getting so much attention, nor that his rise should be meteoric. His background contains elements that would appeal both to hip, urban liberals and to traditional, rural conservatives, and indeed, to everyone in between. A graduate of Harvard Law School who paid off his student loans in one year with a job at the prestigious law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, as well as a former consultant at McKinsey, Cotton’s educational and civilian background radiates Ivy League privilege.

However, between his Gibson Dunn job and his post at McKinsey, Cotton also held a post that endeared him fiercely to conservatives: that of a platoon leader in the famous 101st Airborne unit. What’s more, while he still held his military post, Cotton endeared himself to conservatives who are suspicious of the media by writing a brutal open letter castigating several journalists at the New York Times for publishing information about a secret government program. Here is the letter in full:

Dear Messrs. Keller, Lichtblau & Risen:

Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program (June 23). I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq. (Alas, operational security and common sense prevent me from even revealing this unclassified location in a private medium like email.)

Unfortunately, as I supervised my soldiers late one night, I heard a booming explosion several miles away. I learned a few hours later that a powerful roadside bomb killed one soldier and severely injured another from my 130-man company. I deeply hope that we can find and kill or capture the terrorists responsible for that bomb. But, of course, these terrorists do not spring from the soil like Plato’s guardians. No, they require financing to obtain mortars and artillery shells, priming explosives, wiring and circuitry, not to mention for training and payments to locals willing to emplace bombs in exchange for a few months’ salary. As your story states, the program was legal, briefed to Congress, supported in the government and financial industry, and very successful.

Not anymore. You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here. Next time I hear that familiar explosion — or next time I feel it — I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.

And, by the way, having graduated from Harvard Law and practiced with a federal appellate judge and two Washington law firms before becoming an infantry officer, I am well-versed in the espionage laws relevant to this story and others — laws you have plainly violated. I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.

Very truly yours,

Tom Cotton
Baghdad, Iraq

The letter caused a stir among conservatives and, more impressively, among liberals, who predictably reacted with horror when Cotton first announced his run for Congress. They must have felt even worse when he decisively beat the competition.

And things look set to get much, much worse for Cotton’s detractors, if his present trajectory continues. Cotton has been on a whirlwind tour of national media, and doing everything from giving advice on future GOP strategy to the National Journal to talking up Arkansas-specific issues on local TV stations.

Perhaps more worrying for liberals, though, is the fact that many conservatives view Cotton as a legitimate challenger when the long-time Democrat from Arkansas,  Sen. Mark Pryor, comes up for reelection in 2014. And Cotton himself has been unusually bold in announcing his willingness to consider the prospect.

Cotton would have vulnerabilities, however. His short tenure in office would almost certainly be one, and the controversial nature of some of his votes/statements has already led some observers to label him as an extremist. Moreover, Cotton has at least one quote that could dog him with Republicans – namely, his explicitly expressed wish that Hillary Clinton had been nominated by the Democrats in 2008, instead of Barack Obama, possibly implying that he wishes she’d been President:

Pryor also has one serious trump card up his sleeve, in the form of the support of former President Bill Clinton, who has announced that he will be headlining fundraisers for Pryor, probably due to the latter’s perceived vulnerability. It certainly would be consistent with Clinton’s past record, as this is the second time during President Obama’s term that Clinton has fundraised for a vulnerable Arkansas Democrat, the last time being for Senator Blanche Lincoln, who went on to lose.

Still, these factors could be a wash, so we reached out to Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, who also works with longtime election predictions specialist Larry Sabato of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, to see if Cotton could stand a chance against a veteran Senator with barely a month in office under his belt.

“Tom Cotton was being talked up as a potential statewide — or even presidential — candidate during the 2012 election cycle, even before he even won his House seat,” Kondik wrote via email. “The retirement of Rep. Mike Ross gave Cotton a path to the House, and he dispatched primary opponent Beth Anne Rankin — who had the endorsement of Mike Huckabee — and general election opponent Gene Jeffress with relative ease.”

But this didn’t mean Cotton was a lock for victory. Kondik continued, “Pryor is going to be hard to beat, but Cotton seems more well-regarded by national Republicans than the other top possibility, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr. Arkansas’ rightward-leaning trajectory also cannot be ignored; the House delegation is now all Republican and the GOP captured the state House and Senate in 2012. If Cotton ran he would have little trouble raising money, although it might strike some as presumptuous for a freshman congressman to turn around and immediately run for the Senate — such sentiments probably hurt ex-Rep. Rick Berg (R-ND) in his ill-fated Senate run last year.”

But despite Cotton’s quite short time in office, Kondik didn’t rule him out completely, which should worry Pryor’s backers. ”

Is Cotton for real?” Kondik wrote. “Who knows, but there’s one way to find out — a tough Senate race against a statewide institution.”