If you call up Republican officials in Iowa and New Hampshire, one potential 2024 presidential candidate's name comes up again and again: Tom Cotton.
Politicians are expected to parade through the early states well ahead of 2024, and many Republicans are, even with the looming possibility that former president Donald Trump will run again. But few have been the fixture that is Cotton, the Arkansas senator, party officials say. He's already attending county Christmas parties and local pastimes. Earlier this year, he zoomed into the New Hampshire GOP's annual committee meeting to show his support for the state's first-in-the-the-nation primary status, promising yet another visit.
“He has really been pounding the pavement,” New Hampshire committee member Juliana Bergeron told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “And honestly, I joked that ‘I was beginning to think he lived here.’ But he doesn't.”
Iowa state party chair Jeff Kaufmann told BuzzFeed News, “Tom Cotton not only has been to the state multiple times, he's very strategic in where he's going. I mean, he's made a point to appear on the Missouri River. He's made a point to appear on the Mississippi. He's made a point to go to northern Iowa."
Last summer, Cotton stopped into the Third Annual Machine Gun Shoot in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, to fire off a few rounds. He was a speaker at a tailgate event at the University of Iowa a couple of months later. And in December, he gifted VIP attendees of the Cheshire County Christmas Party copies of his book Sacred Duty. Before the party, Jane Lane, the state committee’s secretary, said there were concerns he wouldn’t attract people to the event since he’d visited the state so often. “But it turns out he was a good draw,” she said.
“He’s much more personable than he comes across on TV,” Lane said. “And I was really impressed with his handshake. You can tell a lot by these people how they shake your hand.”
Cotton, whose office did not return requests for comment, is just one of many potential 2024 candidates who’ve traveled to the early states in recent months: Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo attended a fundraiser in Iowa on Friday. Former vice president Mike Pence, Sen. Rick Scott, Sen. Tim Scott, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador, have all made preliminary rounds. And despite Cotton’s early outreach, he has not performed well in public polling so far. He polled between 2% and 3% in Echelon insights and McLaughlin & Associates surveys, in company with Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Liz Cheney. Last month, Cotton tied with Sen. Marco Rubio and Ben Carson in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll with just .03%.
Cotton is trying to build a national case as a law-and-order, tough-on-defense candidate — clearly on display in his recent and very intense speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. There, he put forth Andrew Jackson as a standard-bearer, railed against the “administrative state,” invoked bloody episodes from American history, argued for “restoring patriotic education” by ending critical race theory, and lobbied for ending trade concessions to China and remaining tough on Vladimir Putin.
In the speech, he especially criticized the First Step Act, the Trump-era bipartisan criminal justice law that changed some sentencing rules, calling it the “worst mistake of” the former president's tenure. Cotton called for ending the “carnage” of crime and made an extended allusion to Jackson.
“Here we can take inspiration once again from Old Hickory,” Cotton said in the speech. “In 1818, criminals and marauders used lawless portions of Spanish Florida as bases to attack and kill American citizens. In response, General Jackson invaded Spanish territory, rooted out those responsible, and then conquered the Spanish capital just for good measure. We should show the same resolve in the face of crime and lawlessness today.”
How to handle crime and the criminal justice system has divided Republicans in recent years: The 2020 Republican convention featured both people whose prison sentences Trump commuted and officials talking about the need to get tough on crime and invoking the kinds of metaphors Cotton used.
Doug Collins, a former Republican member of Congress who helped steer the legislation, defended the First Step Act this week, saying that the law focused on “preparing men and women to come back into society” and reducing recidivism, rather than having to do with the uptick in crime.
“I think it's Tom Cotton being Tom Cotton. He's never agreed with this plan,” Collins said in an interview. “I'm not sure why you would be against that, and especially when Donald Trump showed that it actually helped people. It’s an easy attack from a conservative position, but without taking into account the realities of what's happening.”
The overall case Cotton made last week, though, largely embraces the themes Trump ran on in 2016 when he upended Republican politics. If Trump doesn’t run again, the field may actually be wide open.
And Iowa and New Hampshire are states with voters that can reward politicians who take the time. The last two Republican Iowa caucus winners — Cruz and former senator Rick Santorum — spent months and months in the state.
"In Iowa, people appreciate not only coming to the state; often, they appreciate making an effort to come to every corner of the state," Kaufmann said.
Before the 2008 primary, John McCain debarked a plane in Manchester, New Hampshire, “with a suitcase in hand, no aides, no money,” the state’s chair recalled. McCain would go on to make the rounds to about 400 of the state’s town halls before eventually securing the Republican nomination.
“We have to meet somebody four or five times before we make a decision of whether we support him for president or not,” Lane said.