Tom Cotton is already laying the groundwork in New Hampshire for a 2024 presidential run

Jake Lahut
·9 min read
tom cotton new hampshire 2024
Sen. Tom Cotton. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
  • Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was in New Hampshire on Monday, his second visit to campaign for down-ballot Republicans in a state worth four electoral votes.

  • The pair of candidates Cotton stumped for remain relative long shots in their bids to unseat Democratic incumbents in the House and the Senate. And Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, leads President Donald Trump by an average of 11 points in the state.

  • But New Hampshire has an outsize influence as the first-in-the-nation primary state, and Cotton was not subtle when asked about speculation that he will run for president in 2024. "I expect I'll be back to New Hampshire again in the future," Cotton told Insider.

  • Cotton's messaging at the events and in interviews with Insider came down to a focus on cultural issues like antifa and rioting in cities.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

LONDONDERRY, New Hampshire — Sitting cross-legged in front of a rifle display case and dressed for fall in New England with a green fleece vest, Tom Cotton was waiting his turn to speak.

The 43-year-old Republican senator from Arkansas has long been mentioned as a future presidential contender, and here he was, testing the waters in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

Cotton has grown louder on the national political stage in recent years.

He has become omnipresent on Fox News, embraced his own genre of trolling on Twitter, and demonstrated an attunement to online culture wars and an ability to capitalize on them with his controversial New York Times op-ed article that led to the resignation of the paper's editorial-page editor.

On the podcast circuit, Cotton talks about reading Plato and Heidegger as a college student studying the "great books," how he views Iran as one of the world's most dangerous powers, how he disagrees with President Donald Trump's withdrawal of American influence on the global stage, and how he was once a pretty good high-school basketball player for the Dardanelle Sand Lizards.

Fleece-vest Tom Cotton, however, has a much more pared-down message for Granite Staters.

On Monday morning, Cotton made sure his face mask was on for the lone camera rig — from WMUR, the only local TV news outlet in New Hampshire — at a press conference he held with Matt Mowers, a Republican congressional candidate.

Inside the local American Legion chapter in Londonderry, a wealthy suburb of Manchester, his hefty double-tied blue mask rested around his neck as law-enforcement officials across the table discussed the challenges of their profession following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Facing a safe reelection, Cotton spoke about his military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to make a point about bad cops.

"You know, when I was in the Army, we used to say that we spend 95% of our time on 5% of our soldiers," Cotton said. "I bet you say the same thing in your departments."

With 15 days left before Election Day, Cotton was dedicating his time to small events in a state worth just four electoral votes and where Trump is down by an average of 11 points.

Both candidates he was campaigning for — Mowers, a 31-year-old former Trump advisor and State Department official, and Corky Messner, a 64-year-old attorney whose firm represented Chipotle — remain long shots to oust Democratic incumbents.

The invisible primary

Cotton's events were also not widely publicized to attract voters. They were small, intimate stops that gave Republican donors and state lawmakers a chance to kick the tires on Cotton ahead of a potential 2024 bid.

The kinds of Republicans Cotton was mingling with can offer donations, venues for events, and homes for campaign staffers to stay in during primary season.

This political intelligentsia often includes not just wealthy donors but also some of the 424 state lawmakers and myriad local officials.

At the American Legion chapter, Republican Rep. Doug Thomas told Insider that he was the driver for Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador, during a swing she made through the Granite State a couple of weeks ago.

Thomas described Haley as "a phenomenal lady," and he had high praise for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another potential 2024 candidate, who he credited for going against "the COVID mandates."

Thomas said that while he hadn't really heard of Cotton before, he was excited about the senator's presence at the humble American Legion hall.

"It shows that the whole nation is interested in New Hampshire," the four-term lawmaker said.

'Overwhelming display of force'

As the discussion in the American Legion hall progressed, Cotton's posture loosened slightly, and he chimed in more.

His stature as a Twitter lightning rod and his pedigree as a future Republican leader did not come through in this kind of a setting.

On Capitol Hill, Cotton's tall, slender frame is defined by the sharp edges on the shoulders of his suits. On the trail in New Hampshire, his khaki pants and sloped profile from the fleece vest communicated something different, as Cotton politely hung back in the conversation and avoided much eye contact with attendees.

However, his rhetoric began to mirror his Times op-ed article, titled "Send in the Troops."

Cotton talked at length about his Army service, emphasizing those credentials more than his pair of degrees from Harvard or his time in the House of Representatives before ascending to the Senate in 2014.

The all-male roundtable turned into a venting session for various grievances.

"It's like a trend for people to resist officers," said Timon Aikawi, a police officer, adding that people "look at us as the bad guy, or they start recording halfway through."

Cotton used precise militaristic terms when responding to officers expressing their dismay at rioting in American cities and their view that the news media underestimates antifa.

"One of the best ways to avoid the necessary use of force in a setting like that with potential rioting and looting is to have an overwhelming display of force from the beginning to make it clear to the criminal element who may be infiltrating those protesters that you'll brook no violence against persons or property whatsoever," he said.

The senator was met with nodding approval from the officers in the idyllic New England town.

'I expect I'll be back to New Hampshire again in the future'

After Cotton told a story about helping police officers in Arlington, Virginia, chase down a bunch of kids who stole someone's iPhone at a restaurant — culminating in one of the kids throwing a dustpan at the future senator — he was off to the next event.

As he headed out the door, Cotton was asked about a 2024 run. He wasn't as coy as some politicians are when they're spotted in New Hampshire well before the next election season.

"I expect I'll be back to New Hampshire again in the future," Cotton told Insider. "But for right now, especially with 15 days until this election ... we are focused 100% on these elections coming up."

Mowers joked that Cotton's motives were more innocent. "Come on," he said, "it's peak foliage time."

Messner's fundraiser was at The Grand, the best event space at the Bedford Village Inn.

Mask-wearing was mixed in the patio area, with a few older attendees scrambling to find one when they realized they might need to cover their faces.

Cotton mingled as Messner held court, and then the two came together for a chat.

Both told Insider that they thought Trump was best equipped to rebuild the economy and keep taxes low, referring to the coronavirus pandemic more in the past tense; Cotton described COVID-19 as something that "knocked us on our back in March and April all across the country."

As for whether Cotton thinks Trump is on the ropes or whether there was anything the president had done to make Cotton regret supporting him, the Arkansan took a longer view of Americans who "work with their hands or on their feet."

He did not mention Trump by name.

"If you're a Granite Stater and you care about keeping more of the money you earn, and you care about being able to defend your home — whether you've owned a gun your entire life or whether you're one of the millions of Americans who have bought a gun in the last four months — and you want to protect our country from illegal [immigration], and you want to protect American jobs for American workers first, and you want a military that is second to none to defend our nation, hopefully without ever having to fire a shot, then Corky Messner is your candidate, and the Republican Party is your party," Cotton said.

That list of items coupled with Cotton's cadence and precise gestures could constitute a stump speech. It could be the first impression he makes on New Hampshire voters.

But there was a disconnect between Cotton's withdrawn demeanor at these intimate events and his bravado on Twitter and Fox News.

Normally, presidential hopefuls make a point to tick off major local issues in New Hampshire — property taxes, the opioid epidemic, broadband internet access, and infrastructure are some of the most popular ones.

Instead, Cotton made his messaging more Trump-centric and focused on cultural issues.

One of the leading foreign-policy voices in the Senate Republican caucus referred to Americans "infiltrating" protests as effectively enemy combatants.

New Hampshire is one of the whitest states in the country, firmly in the top five, with somewhere between 92% and 95% of its residents identifying as non-Hispanic white.

The state was crucial to vaulting and legitimizing Trump's campaign in 2016. He was able to win New Hampshire in the primary without doing the kind of small-scale retail politics that have shaped its presidential-campaign orthodoxy over the years.

Beyond whether Cotton is going about the invisible primary courting process effectively, a bigger dynamic brought him to the Granite State.

It says something about the Republican Party and American politics in 2020 that someone of the senator's standing was there in the first place this far out from the next presidential-election cycle, before the current one even ends.

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