The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A senator’s Iowa visit offers hints at a post-Trump GOP

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) listens during an interview in Washington on March 17, 2015. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

BETTENDORF, Iowa — One thousand, four hundred and eighty-four days before the 2020 presidential election, a ballroom full of Iowa Republicans got a chance to size up a future contender. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), just 39 and with a Harvard red/Army green résumé that would have blown away the 2016 presidential field, was finishing four days of Iowa campaign stops with the keynote speech at Scott County's Republican dinner. Here, in mid-October, was the future of the GOP.

It was upstaged by the present. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), being watched more closely than ever as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's poll numbers cratered, arrived at the dinner early, bringing an entourage of about a dozen reporters and half as many TV cameras. "Your featured speaker tonight, which is not me, is really, I think, one of the most courageous, remarkable leaders in the Congress in many, many years," Pence said.

Fifteen minutes later, he was gone, and so were most of the members of the media. Just four print reporters and one local news station stayed as Cotton introduced himself to Iowa, talking up his wife's birth in Sioux City ("Tonight, I had the honor to meet for the first time my wife's godmother") and the places he'd seen when helping elect Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). He mentioned the stakes of the election. He did not mention Trump.

"Iowa, there's nothing normal about Bible-believing Christians being tarred as bigots because they simply want to live their faith in their day-to-day life," Cotton said. "There's nothing normal about a country that won't secure its borders, but will admit a million immigrants a year -- the population of Iowa added every three years, at a time when our country and too many of our fellow citizens are out of work or haven't had a pay raise in years."

No Republican, least of all Cotton, will broach the possibility that the 2016 election is lost. Even in his awkward, elongated effort to cleave Trump from vulnerable House candidates, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has given no indication of what many Republican strategists believe -- that in January, Hillary Clinton will become the 45th president of the United States.

Implicitly, those strategists think that the Trump nomination might be a black-swan event. The most respected figures in the party, now working other races or groaning into TV monitors, will return to rebuild on Nov. 9. The Republican National Committee's post-2012 autopsy (sample advice: "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform") would be recovered from the evidence room.

"It’s too early to think 2020," said A.J. Spiker, a former Iowa GOP chairman who backed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) for president and has since called on Trump to quit. "There are still people naive enough to think that Trump can actually win the election. It would politically make more sense to come here in the spring or summer than to come out now."

Cotton's tour of Iowa suggested a more complicated Republican future. Bookended by two fundraising dinner speeches that lacerated the Obama administration, it included lower-profile Cotton campaign stops for Republicans who hope to overcome any Trump backlash down the ballot. On Friday, Cotton was adding to the chorus of Republicans hinting that Trump might want to relinquish the nomination; by Tuesday, he was saying that Trump was contrite about his newly revealed groping fantasies, and that the party needed to focus on winning.

That meant populist domestic policies that resembled Trump's, and peace-through-strength foreign policies that resembled Cotton's. "After traveling your state for four days, I don't hear that the American people are angry," he said in Bettendorf. "Calling the American people 'angry' is saying they're like stubborn little kids, like my son when he didn't get his way. In reality, it's the American people who act like grown-ups and the leaders in Washington who act like little kids. People are tired of their very real anxieties being dismissed as unfounded."

For most people in the audience, Cotton was making his first impression. In interviews, a few Republicans said they'd seen Cotton on Fox News Channel; most had not heard of him. Questions about what might happen in the party after a Trump loss were, at first dismissed, then answered with praise for Mike Pence.

"He'll make an outstanding vice president," said Jaclyn Dooley, 68.

"The speech he gave tonight was fantastic," said Shane Swift, 45. "I'm a little less concerned about the election after the debate on Sunday -- Trump did much better."

Another Cotton event, a few hours earlier, was illustrative of how he and the Republicans on the ballot this year are navigating the Trump situation. Among Republican voters, there is little appetite for bailing on the nominee. Among all voters, there's rampant skepticism about Trump, leaving Republicans to explain why they are different.

Cotton navigated that skepticism at Cobham, a Davenport defense contractor that opened its doors to him and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who is facing a long-shot reelection challenge. The senator from Arkansas took every opportunity to remind Cobham workers that, unlike many politicians they'd met, had served in war. Opening up a pair of safety glasses, he said that he'd worn something like them in Afghanistan. To open up the town-hall meeting with employees, Cotton praised them for taking their "mission" seriously. "As I walked the floor, I saw American flags, I saw yellow ribbons, I saw young men in uniform," he said.

When the questions began to come in, Cotton joked that he'd "jump on a grenade" for Grassley if they kept coming so hot. The first question was about Trump; the last was about Grassley's refusal to hold hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. In between, one Cobham employee asked if Cotton and Grassley could really work with a President Hillary Clinton, or if they'd just oppose her.

Cotton began by explaining that Republicans really did want to work with the president. "There’ll be more instances where I disagree with Hillary Clinton," he said. "I’m sure there’ll be some cases where we work together. I don’t want any president to fail, though, because it’s hard for the United States to succeed if the president is failing." Seconds later, he pivoted, explaining why even a good-intentioned Clinton would have to be stopped from stumbling into disaster: "The last time a Clinton was in the White House, they signed an agreement with North Korea that allowed the country to get nuclear weapons in just 12 years."

Another question, on criminal justice reform, could have driven a wedge between Grassley and Cotton -- never mind the Democrats. As Cotton stood a few feet away, Grassley said that his own criminal justice reform bill was "not going through the Senate like it should," and that someone needed to fix the problems of "minorities" being incarcerated unfairly by mandatory minimums.

"One of the reason the bill’s not moving is misinformation," Grassley said. "A lot of people think if this bill passes, it’s going to open up the prison doors. It doesn’t do that."

Grassley did not say it, but Cotton was one of the Republicans in opposition -- and his opposition had included a defense of mandatory minimums. When he took back the microphone, Cotton stuck to his guns.

"Elected leaders, community leaders, shouldn’t jump to conclusions," Cotton said. "They shouldn’t try to fan the flames of tension. In Ferguson, [Mo.], even the Department of Justice concluded that [police action] was justified under the circumstances. If it turns out that law enforcement officer acted inappropriately, then as we did in the Army, the first people who want to see appropriate action taken are law enforcement officers."

After the town-hall event -- and after Grassley and Cotton had done 22 push-ups to raise awareness of the suicide rate among veterans -- the two of them fielded questions from a skeptical press corps. Both senators agreed that criminal justice reform would not pass in this year's lame-duck session. Both reiterated that Trump was the Republican nominee in a binary choice election, but that did not require defense or apology from every Republican.

Cotton's vision of cooperation was such a stand-out town-hall moment that The Washington Post asked him to expand on it. If Clinton won the election, did Cotton favor further investigations of the scandals that had plagued her campaign?

"I do think it may be appropriate for the next attorney general, whoever may be the next president, to look into the investigation as it occurred in the FBI over the last year and a half," Cotton said. "As new facts come to life and we learn how many people received immunity agreements, or the fact that electronic devices were destroyed immediately after they were searched by the FBI, I think it raises some questions about whether Hillary Clinton has been completely forthcoming."

Once again, the low-key, insistent Cotton had taken a position parallel to that of Trump. He had done so without Trump's table-banging, expressing it as if any one presented with the world of 2017 would make the same conclusions. His big speech in Bettendorf, with a friendlier audience, had hit the same notes.

"I, for, one do not accept failure," Cotton said. "And I will never use political correctness to cover it up."