Invited by Arkansas PBS to participate in a debate with his only opponent, Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington, Tom Cotton didn't show up.
There wasn't any pretense of having some other unavoidable obligation and no last-second Senate vote demanding Cotton's attention. It was a simple, aggressively undisguised signal to the voters of Arkansas.
Tom Cotton is taking Arkansans' votes for granted, and he hasn't done much of anything in this campaign to pretend otherwise.
And, yes, Arkansas voters will probably reward him with another six-year term in the U.S. Senate, his platform to gain access to interviews on national news shows and maybe, just maybe, eventual higher office. He has every reason to smugly begin setting appointments for Senate-related business in the new year.
To a degree, Democrats deserve some of the credit, if one wants to call it that, for Cotton's confidence. With an opportunity to put Republican Cotton's first-term record up for a vote, the opposing party gathered all of its resources and strategic masterminds and gave Arkansans Josh Mahony.
Mahony launched an active campaign that last all the way up until two hours after nobody else could enter the campaign on behalf of the Democratic Party. That is, the filing period to run for the office closed at noon on Nov. 12, 2019, and within two hours of that, Mahony announced that due to a "family health concern" he was dropping out of the race. That's as specific as Mahony or anyone else has gotten about the mysterious move.
It certainly appeared Democrats were completely caught off guard by Mahony's sudden departure. They appeared to be as perplexed as anyone. What little noise they made about potentially replacing Mahony was met with an aggressive response from a Republican guard ready to protect Cotton's flanks. The state GOP had, on the day of the filing deadline, accused Mahony of misrepresenting his employment status on Federal Election Commission forms. After his withdrawal, the GOP threatened to sue the Democrats if they tried to put another Senate candidate into play.
Under state law, a family health concern doesn't pass muster to give a party a right to replace a candidate. If Mahony had communicated his withdrawal plans a little sooner, someone on the Democratic side could have filed and a real contest would have played out. Maybe Cotton would feel a need to actually show up in Arkansas for a debate. Instead, he claimed last week he was just following former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor's precedence of "debating only major party opponents."
That may seem like a snub against the Libertarians and Harrington. But it's really a snub to the voters of Arkansas.
"He's on Fox News ... two or three times a week, but he can't come here to address the people of Arkansas," Harrington asked as the sole participant in last week's Arkansas PBS debate. "Why would you want to support someone who does that?"
I'm not saying the debate would have somehow launched Cotton to a new level of popularity or given Harrington some expectation of victory -- not in a state that will prove reliably pro-Trump come Nov. 3. Cotton certainly didn't have much to gain from it except perhaps a voters' respect for showing up, for being willing to defend his first term. It is, after all, Arkansans' first time to address his actual performance as a U.S. senator.
No matter what, state and local candidates who ask for Arkansans' votes ought to make themselves abundantly available for interviews, public appearances, open forums and debates. How can government be of, for and by the people if their potential representatives take voters for granted and refuse public accountability?
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.