Tom Cotton Keeps Arkansas Republicans in Holding Pattern

LITTLE ROCK - U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton's decision whether to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor won't just affect the Republican Party's bid to complete a sweep of the state's federal offices next year. It'll also determine how crowded a field the GOP will see in a least two other major races.

Cotton, the freshman Republican representing south Arkansas, has indicated he's in no hurry to announce whether he'll seek re-election or attempt to unseat Arkansas' only Democratic senator next year. Several Republicans, however, are already making plans on what to do if he joins the Senate race.

A Cotton bid for Senate could create a domino effect that would open up not only his 4th District seat but probably the state's No. 2 constitutional office as well. Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who is selling his home and Springdale and moving to the south Arkansas district, said he's 90 percent certain he'll run for Cotton's seat if it becomes open.

"When I say I'm 90 percent sure I'm going to run for Congress, that means I think Tom's 99.9 percent certain to run for Senate," Darr said last week.

Cotton, a former management consultant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Army, has provided few clues about his plans but is already viewed as the likeliest challenger to Pryor. A pair of Democratic political action committees is airing television ads in the state criticizing the lawmaker. Meanwhile the Club for Growth, which backed Cotton's run for the 4th District last year, was the first to begin running ads criticizing Pryor earlier this year as he launched his re-election bid.

Cotton has said he's not focused yet on his future.

"I'm focused right now on doing the legislative work the people of Arkansas elected me to do in the short term. We'll make some decisions about political matters later this year," Cotton said.

Darr, who this year ruled out a run for governor and has said he's unlikely to run for Senate, said he'll probably announce by Aug. 1 whether he'll seek re-election. If Cotton hasn't decided about his future race by then, Darr said, he'll wait until later to announce whether he'll seek the 4th District seat.

Also waiting in the wings for the seat is House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, who said he's likely to run for Cotton's seat if the congressman takes on Pryor.

"For every time I'm asked 'are you going to run for Congress,' he's probably been asked 20 times is he going to run for Senate," Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said. "I think that's everyone's expectation, but nothing's official yet."

No Democrats have announced a bid for Cotton's seat, though state Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Warren has said he's considering a run.

A Darr congressional bid would also set up a potentially heated primary among several Republicans eyeing the lieutenant governor's office. The field is more settled for Democrats, with Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter and Little Rock School Board President Dianne Curry seeking the party's nomination.

Republicans who say they're considering a run for lieutenant governor if Darr doesn't seek re-election include state Reps. David Meeks, Andy Mayberry and Charlie Collins.

"I think it's very likely I'm going to get into that lieutenant governor's race," said Collins, R-Fayetteville. "Hopefully in the next couple of weeks there's going to be more clarity on that."

Collins and other Republicans point to the interest in the races as a sign of growth in a party that won control in November of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Republicans in 2008 were unable to field a challenger to Pryor and no GOP candidates ran for three of the state's constitutional offices two years later.

State GOP Spokesman David Ray said though Cotton's decision will provide some certainty on other races, the party isn't rushing him or anyone else to make up their mind soon.

"I would say we're very comfortable with the way things are moving along. We're still 16 months out from the election," Ray said. "No one should feel any pressure to go ahead and announce one thing or another."

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