Thomas Bryant (Tom) Cotton (1977–)

Tom Cotton became the junior senator from Arkansas in 2015. A Republican elected with only Libertarian Party opposition to a second term in 2020, Cotton has gained a high public profile and is spoken of as a possible presidential candidate.

Thomas Bryant Cotton was born on May 13, 1977, in Dardanelle (Yell County) to Thomas Leonard Cotton and Avis Cotton. He grew up on the family’s cattle farm. At Dardanelle High School, from which he graduated in 1995, the six-foot, five-inch Cotton played basketball. Cotton earned his bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University, graduating in 1998 after only three years. While at Harvard, he was a columnist for the Harvard Crimson and was also active in the Harvard Republican Club. He attended Claremont Graduate University to pursue a master’s degree but, after a single year, finding the academic life “too sedentary,” he switched gears, starting Harvard Law School in the fall of 1999. He received his JD from Harvard in 2002.

After graduation from law school, Cotton clerked for Judge Jerry Edwin Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He then spent a short time in private practice as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington DC before enlisting in the U.S. Army, with his service beginning in January 2005. Cotton was discharged in June 2010, having achieved the rank of captain, and he remained in the reserves until May 2013. He was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he earned numerous commendations and awards, including the NATO Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, and both the Iraq and Afghanistan Campaign medals. He was also awarded the Air Assault Badge, Parachutist Badge, Ranger Tab, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Bronze Star.

Upon his discharge, Cotton worked for McKinsey and Company, a management consultant firm, until he began a campaign for a seat in Congress representing Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District as a Republican. In the 2012 race for the open seat created by the retirement of Democratic incumbent Mike Ross, Cotton secured the Republican nomination by garnering over fifty-seven percent of the vote in a multi-candidate primary, and he exceeded that with just under sixty percent in the general election to win the seat.

The freshman congressman quickly set his sights on the Senate seat held by Mark Pryor, who was up for reelection in 2014. Cotton’s House committee assignments included the House Committee on Financial Services and its Subcommittees on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit and Monetary Policy and Trade. In addition, he served on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and its Subcommittees on the Middle East and North Africa and Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. But these assignments notwithstanding, Cotton spent most of his time running for the Senate—a candidacy he announced in August 2013—rather than legislating. At the same time, he left no doubts about his conservative bona fides, consistently calling for less overall government spending but increased expenditures in the defense area, while opposing the administration of President Barack Obama on most matters.

Many political analysts regarded Pryor as one of the nation’s most vulnerable senators, being one of a handful of Democrats in Congress from the South, which was rapidly being dominated by Republicans. Cotton waged an aggressive campaign. Preempting the Republican field with his early announcement, he was unopposed in the primary. The general election was not as close as had been expected, with Cotton achieving an overwhelming victory, garnering 56.5 percent to Pryor’s 39.5. In winning, Cotton became the Senate’s youngest member; for the first time since Reconstruction, all members of the state’s congressional delegation were Republicans.

In 2014, in the midst of his Senate campaign, Cotton married Anna Peckham, an attorney. The couple would soon have two sons, Daniel and Gabriel.

As a member of the Senate, Cotton has drawn upon his army experience and his membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee to establish himself as spokesperson in the press on military matters. Similarly, his high-profile assignments on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees as well as the Joint Economic Committee have given him platforms from which to advance conservative ideological interests.

One controversial example of Cotton’s efforts to advance his agenda was his 2015 public letter to Iranian leaders while the Obama administration was in the midst of negotiations aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. Cotton’s letter, which was signed by forty-six Republican senators, was not only an obvious attack on the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but it also represented a major departure from the way that foreign policy, in general, had historically been handled. Indeed, the letter represented a sharp break from the historic tradition of foreign policy bipartisanship, one famously captured in Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s statement that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” The reactions to the letter were immediate and strong. While it was met with acclaim by the party’s hawkish right wing, it seemed to endear Cotton to no one beyond that particular group, with many seeing it as not only an obvious and unprecedented breach of protocol, even a perhaps illegal and unconstitutional encroachment on the executive branch’s responsibility in the area of foreign policy and diplomacy.

Cotton proved a loyal supporter of President Donald J. Trump. He supported the tax bill of 2017 (which drastically lowered taxes upon the wealthy), has been a staunch opponent of abortion, and has said that both Roe v. Wade and the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, were wrongfully decided. Cotton had no qualms about the Republicans blocking President Obama’s effort to fill the U.S. Supreme Court’s vacancy following the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, but when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died less than two months before the 2020 election, Cotton joined his Republican colleagues in pushing for the immediate appointment of her successor, voting to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Court less than two weeks before the 2020 presidential election.

However, soon after the first of the year 2021, Cotton announced that he would not support Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. When the results came before Congress for the certification process on January 6, 2021, Cotton stood by his promise—even in the midst of the Capitol insurrection. At the same time, he opposed all efforts to establish an independent commission or select a committee to investigate the violent events of January 6.

Over the years, the senator developed a reputation as someone eager to attract media attention. In June 2020, he found himself in the middle of a major controversy after publishing in the New York Times an op-ed piece titled, “Send the Troops In.” The piece, which called for the use of troops to quell the protests following the murder of George Floyd, led to a great outcry, with many regarding it as an incitement to further violence. The Times apologized, explaining that the piece had not undergone the standard pre-publication review process, and the editor who had approved it resigned. Cotton later came under fire for his attacks on an Air Force Academy professor for teaching “critical race theory,” a Republican bête noire, although critics accused Cotton of misrepresenting the case. Cotton was also part of a dustup between Trump and Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen after Trump proposed that the United States buy Greenland, which is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. Cotton claimed to have given the idea of purchasing Greenland to Trump; it came to light in 2022 that Cotton may been inspired by receipt of a letter purporting to be from Greenland’s foreign minister that was actually a forgery produced by Russian intelligence.

While Cotton has made no definitive statement, his name is regularly included on lists of Republican presidential possibilities. In 2020, he purchased a home in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

In November 2021, a lawsuit against the National Rifle Association (NRA) alleged that the organization established a number of shell corporations to coordinate illegal campaign contributions to Republicans, including Cotton.

For additional information:
“About Tom.” Tom Cotton: Senator for Arkansas. https://www.cotton.senate.gov/about (accessed December 17, 2021).

“Sen. Tom Cotton.” Govtrack.us. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/tom_cotton/412508 (accessed December 17, 2021).

“Senator Tom Cotton.” Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/member/tom-cotton/C001095 (accessed December 17, 2021).

“Tom Cotton.” Ballotpedia. https://ballotpedia.org/Tom_Cotton (accessed December 17, 2021).

Toobin, Jeffrey. “Is Tom Cotton the Future of Trumpism? The Junior Senator from Arkansas Is a Hybrid of Insurgent and Old Guard.” New Yorker, December 17, 2017.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 01/11/2022