Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is running for president. The fiercely ambitious right-wing culture warrior who last summer described slavery as a “necessary evil” won’t admit it publicly yet, but there’s no doubt that Cotton is positioning himself to be the more-Trump-than-Trump successor to the Republican whose occupation of the Oval Office could be upended on November 3.
While Cotton has found plenty of time this fall for positioning outside Arkansas, the senator who is up for reelection in 2020 couldn’t make time in his busy political schedule for the Arkansas US Senate debate. That’s right, the Republican senator who has been campaigning all over the country skipped his own debate.
Cotton likes to pretend that he doesn’t face a race this year. That’s by design. His allies executed a sly strategy to upend the bid of his expected Democratic challenger, Joshua Mahony, who quit the contest (ostensibly for family health reasons) after the deadline expired for another Democrat to qualify. When Cotton wrote a fascistic New York Times op-ed in June, media outlets dutifully ran articles with headlines like “As Tom Cotton courts controversy, he runs unopposed in Arkansas.”
Which is not true. Cotton has an opponent who is ready, willing, and able to debate. So Arkansas PBS stations aired a mid-October “debate” featuring a moderator, three journalists, and Libertarian Party candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr., a former prison chaplain who hopes to be Arkansas’s first Black senator.
Harrington acknowledged that he was frustrated by Cotton’s no-show. “He’s on Fox News, I don’t know how many times a week—two or three times a week?—but he can’t come here to address the people of Arkansas,” the 34-year-old challenger explained. “Why would you want to support somebody that does that?” Cotton’s absence didn’t stop Harrington from seizing the opportunity to “speak directly to the people of Arkansas” on the issues. And he concluded on an epic note:
People of Arkansas, you know who you are, you know where you’ve come from. Our country has been through a great many struggles. We’ve been through the Revolutionary War, a Civil War, numerous conflicts, the Spanish flu, two world wars, the turmoil of the civil rights movement. But I know one thing. I know the people of America are resilient. I know that they never back down from a challenge.
During the 2008 mortgage crisis, we endured that. And right now we are enduring turmoil in the streets as people try to protest police brutality. We are dealing with a pandemic, but I know who you are. You are resilient people. You can overcome this just like we have overcome all the troubles in our past. But we can only do it if we work together, if you remember that those who disagree with you are still human beings. We don’t have to agree on everything. And if everyone is thinking alike, is there really much thinking going on. Our differences make us stronger. And I appeal to this great people that, even though we have failed, even though we are still continually striving for that great idea of justice, of liberty, and equality under the law, we can overcome anything. I ask you right now to consider sending me to Washington to be your senator. And I give you my word, I will represent you.
In the debate and on the campaign trail, Harrington has embraced some standard Libertarian positions. He’s for budget cuts and claims that “the broken American health care system cannot be fixed by government legislation or mandate.” But his top issue is criminal justice reform, and he’s got a platform that argues for decriminalization of marijuana, eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, and instituting police training in de-escalation and nonviolent crisis intervention. He’s for cutting Pentagon spending, ending non-defensive military conflicts, and holding presidents accountable for engaging in military conflicts without a congressional declaration of war. And he says, “This country belongs to each and every citizen regardless of race, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious preference…”
The response to Harrington’s sincere effort to make a campaign of it has been striking. Polls have regularly shown him attracting 20 percent or more of the vote—sometimes substantially more. One survey conducted in mid-October by the American Research Group registered 38 percent for Harrington to 49 percent for Cotton. That’s notable, considering that when Cotton successfully challenged Democratic Senator Mark Pryor in 2014, Pryor finished with just 39 percent of the vote. This year, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has struggled to get past the 40 percent mark in Arkansas.
If a third-party candidate who started the Senate race with no name recognition and almost no money finishes as well, or even better, than a sitting senator or this year’s Democratic presidential nominee, that could cast some shade on Cotton’s presidential ambitions.
And, make no mistake, embarrassing Cotton is an admirable political goal.
Cotton’s outrageous June 3 New York Times opinion piece, which championed proposals to send the military into American cities to crack down on protests against police violence and systemic racism, led commentator Max Boot to observe that “Republicans are increasingly flirting with fascism,” while Times columnist Michelle Goldberg labeled the senator’s column “Tom Cotton’s Fascist Op-Ed.” Seth Meyers reminded the paper’s editors, “You’re not legally obligated to run fascist calls for military occupation in your newspaper,” and Times editorial page editor James Bennet quickly stepped down following what publisher A.G. Sulzberger referred to as “a significant breakdown in our editing processes.”
But Cotton was just getting started. In July, he attacked The New York Times Magazine’s groundbreaking 1619 Project and announced legislation to prevent federal funds and professional development grants from going to schools that develop curricula based on the project, which, the magazine explained, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Cotton dismissed the project as “left-wing propaganda.” He also said of slavery, “As the founding fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”
Cotton later claimed he didn’t support the “necessary evil” position but was merely making note of the view of the founders. However, CNN reported, “there doesn’t appear to be a record of [the founders] arguing slavery in the US was a ‘necessary evil.’” And Nikole Hannah-Jones explained to the senator:
You said, quote: “As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” That “as” denotes agreement. Further, if by path to extinction you mean growing the enslaved [population] from 500k to 4 million at Civil War, a war fought over slavery, then, ok.
Harrington had a response of his own. “You will be facing Arkansas’ first African American candidate for US Senate,” wrote the challenger in July. “Let us debate on this issue now!!”
Cotton refused. But that didn’t change the fact that, as the Arkansas Times noted in a report on the controversy, “There is an alternative to Tom Cotton.”