Tom Cotton Running Unopposed Thanks To Good Ol' Ratf*ck Of Democratic Candidate
While we were getting our list of 2020 Senate races together, we noticed that Tom Cotton, the Republican sleazeweevil from Arkansas, is running unopposed for reelection. Yeesh, Arkansas Democrats, we thought, it's a red state, but you should at least have tried. And then when we looked into it, we found that, in fact, there had indeed been a Democrat running against Cotton for a few months last year, a guy named Joshua Mahony. But Mahony dropped out of the race two hours after the November 17 filing deadline. Under Arkansas law, parties can only pick a new candidate after the filing period ends if their candidate dies or is seriously ill. That wasn't the case, so Tom Cotton is virtually guaranteed to roll to reelection without even having to contend with any speed bumps — while continuing to fundraise, to boot.
Now, to be sure, even a top-notch Democratic candidate would have a hard time in Arkansas, which has been dominated by increasingly right-leaning Republicans in recent years, to the point that many of the angriest political battles have been between traditional business-class conservatives and fire-breathing culture-wars righties. Mahony was a fairly weak candidate to start with, and probably had no business running for the Senate anyway. We suppose the best that can be said about how the whole mess played out is that it's a good cautionary tale: Don't go with a candidate who you haven't thoroughly vetted.
Mahony had previously run an unsuccessful 2018 campaign for Congress, against Rep. Steve Womack, who stomped him by 30 percentage points. He nonetheless launched a campaign against Cotton last year, and got support from the state Democratic party, largely because he was the only person who was running. As the Facing South political blog says:
As Arkansas political resumes tend to go, Mahony's was unsurprising: a middle-aged white man whose family had been active in state politics. His claims about previous employment and sources of income had come under scrutiny in a September investigation by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but he still enthusiastically filed for the race days before the deadline. Then, two hours after the filing period closed, he abruptly dropped out, leaving Arkansas Democrats without a candidate against one of the most ambitious, powerful politicians in Washington.
Mahony said he'd had to drop out of the race due to "family health concerns," without specifying who was sick or with what, so he may as well have said he wanted to spend more time with his family. Later in November, an attorney for Mahony said it was a relative who was ill, not Mahony himself. The state Democratic party, having been informed the GOP would sue over any attempt to name a new candidate, threw in the towel.
Shortly after Mahony left the contest, a memo to "Senator Cotton's top supporters" emerged, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. In it, Cotton's then-campaign manager bragged that as soon as Mahony declared, in May 2019, GOP operatives started looking for good oppo material, and found plenty — then quietly sat on it until the filing deadline had passed, making it too late for any other Dem to file.
What did they have? The memo mentioned "significant vulnerabilities in Mahony's background," and within minutes of the close of filing, the Arkansas Republican Party said it would be filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about irregularities in Mahony's financial filings. In a remarkably-timed coincidence,
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, questioned the challenger's work history, tweeting that Mahony had been "unable to remember the last time he was employed."
The memo explained,
Our strategy was to hold our research, allow Mahony to gain momentum to prevent other candidates from entering the race, and work [with] the state Republican Party and the NRSC to release this information after it was too late for anyone else to enter the race.
On top of that, the memo also darkly hinted that Cotton's campaign and the GOP had "Other damaging material that has not been made public," and that those details had been shared with reporters, although the memo didn't say what it was. As far as we can tell, it never actually came to light. Once Mahony withdrew, the Republicans graciously decided not to file the FEC complaint either.
The Democrat-Gazette notes that in addition to unflattering information on tax liens and multiple revisions Mahony had made to his financial statements, a Republican operative had some juicy video of Mahony joking at a campaign kickoff event that he didn't have much in the way of paid employment, and sure was glad for the income from his wife, a VP with Walmart:
Asked by the activist how he made his living, Mahony said he was a full-time candidate.
"Right now, it's good, too. My wife is, uh, works very hard and is, uh, keeps me from going broke, I suppose," he said on camera, pausing a few seconds to laugh. "I'm a kept man. How about that? Let's call it that way."
We doubt that would have been bad enough to knock Mahony out of the race on its own, so Crom only knows what the other dirt was.
So there's a lesson to minority candidates and parties: If you have something in your background that would kill your chances if it comes out, better to assume it will come out, and don't run in the first place. Cotton's machinations to clear the field of opposition were sneaky but predictable. If Mahony folded that quickly, he probably should have known better than to go into the race at all. (Is it really ratfucking if the target has already been making lascivious glances at the rats? We are just asking.)
And parties need to vet their own candidates, even early on, with an eye to finding out whether they have anything in their backgrounds that could trip them up. It doesn't look like Arkansas Dems did that with Mahony. State Democratic chair Michael John Gray said,
Josh announced early. He gained broad support from across the state amongst leaders in the Democratic Party. [...] We are always working to ensure that there are candidates on the ballot. ... Other than Josh, no one showed any real interest in the Senate race.
That's not how you build a party when you're out of power. Even if there's no chance of actually beating a Tom Cotton in a state like Arkansas, a credible candidate would have at least forced Cotton to spend some money on the race. Now, instead, Cotton can throw his own considerable campaign cash (over $6 million as of the last reporting period in June) at helping other Republicans, and can build up funds for the 2024 presidential run he says he has no interest in.
We should note there is a self-described progressive candidate, Dan Whitfield, trying to get onto the Arkansas ballot as an independent. Unfortunately, because the state went into lockdown during the petition-gathering period, Whitfield fell well short of the 10,000 signatures needed to be placed on the ballot. He lost a federal court case in June, but has appealed that decision. At this point, it's not clear whether the appeal has much of a chance, since Whitfield would have to prove not just that the COVID-19 emergency burdened his ability to get signatures, but also that the first trial judge had clearly made an error in finding otherwise.
As this cheerfully pissy blog post by a progressive lawyer who's clearly no fan of Whitfield explains, that's a pretty high bar to get over — particularly since by the time the appeal is considered, the week of October 19, absentee ballots will already have been sent out, and early voting will have begun. A late-August post from the same blog turned up a 2012 Facebook post in which Whitfield, then 25, had said, of that year's presidential debates, "i'm watching nobama make a monkey of himself." Sigh.
In conclusion, we were at least glad to read that in the fallout of the Mahony fiasco, there have been calls to rebuild the Arkansas Democratic party from the ground up. It sure looks like that's sorely needed. And in the meantime, Tom Cotton will keep explaining how slavery was a "necessary evil," and schools should be free from federal interference, unless of course they go teaching the 1619 project, which he would like to ban. Unless of course he ends up on the Supreme Court.
Christ, Arkansas, get it together.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.