WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, the presumptive Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, will make it official next week at an event in his hometown of Dardanelle, sources told Stephens Media on Wednesday.
Cotton’s political director, state Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, would not confirm or deny the congressman elected to the 4th District seat in November would announce a Senate bid at the event, scheduled for Tuesday.
"All I’m able to say is that we’re going to have a campaign rally in Dardanelle. He’s looking forward to sharing with his hometown supporters how he continues to fight for their shared values in Washington, D.C.," Burris said.
Pryor has already announced that he will seek a third Senate term.
Cotton, who has been viewed for months as a likely challenger to Pryor, has brushed aside reporters’ questions about his political ambitions, indicating any decision would not come before Congress’ August recess.
A fresh round of speculation was fueled Wednesday by an advertisement that appeared in The Yell County Record encouraging people to attend a free barbecue dinner honoring the congressman next Tuesday at the Dardanelle Community Center.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said Wednesday that Cotton told him in a conversation this week he planned to run against Pryor.
"He indicated that he was going to do it but he didn’t give me an exact date (for an announcement), just sooner rather than later," Boozman said.
Cotton will announce at the barbecue that he will run for the Senate in 2014, another source close to Cotton told Stephens Media on condition of anonymity.
Boozman said he anticipated the contest will draw substantial national attention as one of the key battlegrounds for control of the U.S. Senate. While outside groups may run negative attacks, he said Cotton and Pryor likely would focus on issues important to Arkansans.
"Both of these guys are people of character. They will talk about issues and what is good for Arkansas," Boozman said.
Pryor’s campaign manager released a statement Wednesday accusing Cotton of putting political ambition ahead of the interests of Arkansans.
"In seven short months, Tom Cotton’s reckless and irresponsible voting record has alienated Arkansas farmers, seniors, students, women, parents and the business community by voting against such measures as the Farm Bill, student loans, the Violence Against Women Act and trying to cut Social Security and Medicare," Jeff Weaver said.
"Instead of putting Arkansas first, he has put his own political career ahead of the people of Arkansas and sided with Washington insiders and special interests. When the people of our state review Tom Cotton’s record, they won’t like what they see," he said.
State and national Democratic Party organizations also seized the opportunity to criticize Cotton.
"Tom Cotton has been in Congress for five minutes, voting with D.C. special interests and against Arkansans, and thinks he deserves a promotion," the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said in a statement.
Burris responded Wednesday, "He’s been focused on doing the job Arkansans elected him to do, which was to fight Barack Obama and his agenda that hurts Arkansans."
Cotton would enter the contest trailing Pryor in the race for campaign cash. Neither side is expected to be short on campaign funds, however, and independent groups also are expected to flood the state with advertisements for and against both candidates.
Pryor had more than $3.9 million in his campaign treasury at the close of June. Cotton had just under $1.1 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, which could be used for a re-election run or a Senate bid.
Cotton, 36, defeated then-state Sen. Gene Jeffress, D-Louann, to win Arkansas’ 4th District congressional seat in the 2012 general election. A sixth-generation Arkansan, Cotton is a Harvard Law School graduate, an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a former management consultant with New York-based McKinsey & Co.
A Pryor-Cotton contest would mark the second time in four years that an Arkansas Republican congressman took on a sitting Democratic U.S. senator from the state. Boozman, then 3rd District representative, defeated then-U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010.
Pryor was state attorney general when he defeated former Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson in 2002.
Cotton’s expected announcement would open the door for other Republicans to seek his congressional seat.
Arkansas House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, told the Arkansas News Bureau on Wednesday that he is "very seriously" considering running for the 4th District seat if Cotton runs for the Senate.
"I obviously want to wait till Tom makes his decision public before I would commit to anything, but I’m definitely giving it a lot of consideration and getting a lot of encouragement to do that," Westerman said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr told reporters on July 23 that he would announce his political plans after Cotton announced his plans, which many interpreted as an indication that Darr was interested in running for the 4th District seat if Cotton decides to challenge Pryor. A phone message left at Darr’s office Wednesday was not immediately returned.
Beth Anne Rankin of Magnolia, who was the GOP nominee in the 4th District in 2010 but lost to Democratic incumbent Mike Ross and unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination last year, said Wednesday, "If Congressman Cotton announces a decision to run for U.S. Senate, then I would seriously consider another run for the Fourth Congressional District."
Janis Percefull, a teacher and author from Hot Springs, is the only Democrat who has announced as a candidate in the 4th District.
State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, D-Warren, told the Arkansas News Bureau on Wednesday he is considering a 4th District bid, but the odds that he will get into the race are "50-50."
Arkansas News Bureau reporter John Lyon in Little Rock contributed to this report.