Cotton's NY Times op-ed controversy ups senator's profile, sparks more speculation

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Sen. Tom Cotton’s opinion piece last week in the New York Times in which he called for the U.S. military to be deployed in cities engulfed in unrest following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police sparked controversy and grabbed headlines for the conservative first-term senator with a rising national profile.

The attention helped Cotton energize conservatives and antagonize Democrats – and stoked speculation about Cotton’s possible national ambitions in 2024.

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But it also fueled fundraising for the Arkansas Republican’s reelection campaign. And the senator -- a strong supporter of President Trump who facing no Democratic opponent as he runs for reelection this year -- immediately cashed in, spending some of the money to go up with a digital ad blasting the president’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

Cotton was one of the first lawmakers in Congress to raise red flags about the coronavirus pandemic and has repeatedly slammed Beijing’s handling of the virus which originated in China – so it’s no surprise his commercial targeting the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee focuses on the outbreak.

“China’s lies spread the China virus across the world, putting the health and jobs of the American people at risk,” says the narrator in the spot, which is running in the crucial general election battleground of Michigan and in Iowa, which could also be a competitive swing state in November.

“We need strong decisive leadership to get through this crisis,” the narrator voices under shots of Trump.

“Joe Biden fails the test,” the narrator adds before questioning the former vice president’s mental acuity. The commercial then spotlights verbal flubs by Biden on the campaign trail.

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Cotton – a veteran Army infantry officer who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – has been grabbing attention since he first won election to the House of Representatives in 2012. Two years later he ousted Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor in the 2014 GOP wave election. He upped his national profile soon after entering the Senate by taking a strong stand against the Iranian nuclear deal forged by President Obama’s administration.

But a veteran Republican consultant who’s close to Cotton told Fox News that the opinion piece – which the New York Times solicited --  “was not a publicity stunt. This was not aimed at raising his profile. This was aimed at addressing a real issue. This op-ed was written when the violence was at its height.”

The 43-year-old senator – in an interview Monday on "Fox and Friends" – explained the genesis of the opinion piece.

Pointing back a week, Cotton noted, “I said on your program last Monday that the National Guard needs to be called in, and if they can’t back up police sufficiently to stop this anarchy in our streets, then the Insurrection Act provides the president with the final resort toll he needs. Now fortunately more and more states called in the National Guard through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of last week, and that was not necessary. The New York Times asked me to explain in detail that exact point I made.”

The opinion piece – which posted on the New York Times website – ignited severe pushback from journalists, with the uproar leading to the ouster of the newspaper’s opinions editor.

Cotton – who’s enjoyed the controversy he helped sparked – has repeatedly tweeted about it and told "Fox and Friends" that “within a day it turned into something like a struggle session from the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, where the adults had to prostrate themselves and apologize in front of the woke children that apparently now run the New York Times newsroom.”

On Wednesday, he was back in the news after introducing a resolution calling for justice for Floyd and opposing recent calls to defund the police. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blocked the measure, calling it “an empty field of rhetoric.”

The GOP consultant close to the senator, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely, acknowledged that “we raised a good amount of money” off attention from the opinion piece.

“The senator does not have a Democrat opponent in his Senate race in Arkansas, and so he’s able to devote more attention to helping his colleagues in the Senate so that we can retain the majority and he’s also interested in ensuring that the president is reelected,” the adviser emphasized. “Sen. Cotton will do everything necessary to try to help the president get reelected.”

A conservative Republican strategist and veteran of numerous presidential campaigns noted that the clash with the New York Times “helps him get some more national gravitas.”

“Getting this national attention helps Cotton with fundraising and helps solidify him with his base and gives him some brownie points with President Trump,” the strategist added.

It appeared to work – as the president this week tweeted “Opinion Editor at @nytimes just walked out. That’s right, he quit over the excellent Op-Ed penned by our great Senator @TomCottonAR. TRANSPARENCY! The State of Arkansas is very proud of Tom. The New York Times is Fake News!!!

The new ads are his second stab at Biden. In March, ahead of Ohio’s scheduled primary, the senator’s campaign ran ads in the state that charged the former vice president was weak on China, a theme that the Trump campaign and the top pro-Trump super PAC have also been spotlighting in their ads slamming Biden.

Cotton’s also working to keep the GOP majority in the Senate it won when he was first elected to the chamber six years ago. Cotton’s hosted over a half-dozen virtual fundraisers for Senate Republicans in recent weeks.

The help Cotton’s providing to fellow Republicans in 2020 could pay dividends in 2024, when there will be a competitive Republican presidential nomination race.

At the Republican National Convention four years ago, Cotton spoke with members of the delegations from Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, three crucial early voting presidential primary and caucus states. This year, he endorsed Gen. Don Bolduc, a retired Army general who served in the War in Afghanistan. Bolduc’s now battling for the GOP Senate nomination in New Hampshire.

Jim Merrill, a long-time Granite State-based Republican consultant and veteran of numerous presidential campaigns, highlighted that “The New York Times has done Tom Cotton an enormous favor, giving him an early leg up looking ahead to 2024.”

The consultant close to Cotton emphasized that the senator’s focused on 2020 but added that Cotton “will consider future opportunities as they come available.”

And the adviser spotlighted that the senator “would be very open to serving in the Trump administration in his second term should the president be reelected.”

Fox News' Chad Pergram contributed to this report.