WASHINGTON — The $526,000 first-quarter fundraising total reported by U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton placed him near the top of the 84-member freshman class in Congress.
The campaign fundraising — 20 months ahead of the November 2014 general election — comes as Cotton, R-Dardanelle, has been courted by conservative national groups to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., rather than run for a second term in the House.
Cotton has been coy about his political future, saying that for now he is focused on his job as a representative. He won’t likely make any decision about running for re-election or challenging Pryor until this summer.
Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said Tuesday that Cotton’s fundraising report should not be taken as a sign that he is definitely going to challenge Pryor, who is serving his second term in the Senate.
"It’s no secret that Cotton is a star and the National Republican Senatorial Committee wants him to run against Pryor, period," Sabato said. "But, I don’t think it answers the question if he is running."
Cotton still has to decide himself if he wants to leave a relatively safe seat and challenge an incumbent. Although Pryor is vulnerable as the lone remaining Democrat in Arkansas’ congressional delegation, defeating any incumbent is a struggle, Sabato said.
"He has to make that decision and it’s coming so quick. He’s a freshman and if he were to lose it could stop his career dead in its tracks before it gets started," Sabato said.
Pryor, who officially kicked off his re-election campaign last month, reported raising $1.9 million during the first quarter and now has about $3.4 million in cash on hand.
Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Pryor, said the first-quarter contributions would help them "continue building grassroots momentum for the campaign."
"Despite out-of-state interest groups’ TV and radio ads levying false attacks sooner than any other race in the country, Arkansans know they have a champion in Sen. Mark Pryor who is fighting every day to move Arkansas’ economy forward," Weaver said.
Cotton raised $526,515 during the first three months of the year, ending the quarter with $560,479 cash on hand, according to a financial report filed Monday with the Federal Election Commission.
Cotton received $355,712 from individuals contributing anywhere from $200 to $5,200. Of that total, $103,000 passed through the Club for Growth, a conservative political group that has already begun running independent advertisements targeting Pryor for defeat.
"As I keep my campaign promises to promote economic opportunity for all, fight wasteful spending and defend America against all enemies, I’m grateful for the continued generosity and confidence of my supporters," Cotton said.
Cotton has also gotten sizable contributions from the financial sector through political action committees. Cotton sits on the House Financial Services Committee.
"The fundraising says he is a star and people like to ride a star," Sabato said. "He is going to run for something, someday. Word spreads and people like to get in on the ground floor."
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, who is also considered a potential challenger to Pryor, raised $105,470 during the three-month period, according to his FEC filing. Combined with funds carried over from his 2012 contest, Womack ended March with $485,488 cash on hand.
Womack did not receive any help from the Club for Growth in fundraising, according to his FEC report.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, reported raising $258,061 during the first quarter and had $247,367 cash on hand. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, raised $60,076 and had $153,816 cash on hand, according to FEC filings.
Cotton’s first-quarter fundraising total was near the top of the 84-member freshman class that arrived in Washington in January. Reps. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla, and Joe Garcia, D-Fla., out-raised him. Murphy took in $557,912 and Garcia $550,727. Both are expected to face difficult re-elections, Sabato said.