A remarkable thing is that an aloof, bookish fellow like Tom Cotton is running for the U.S. Senate anywhere, much less in darkest Arkansas.
It's a place Cotton left behind ASAP -- first for Harvard, then ultimately for Washington right-wing "think tanks" -- a place of small cities, country towns, and friendly, talkative people given to down-home retail politics.
Although Cotton's campaign skills have reportedly improved, he's often struck observers as an outsider at his own campaign events -- standing on the sidelines, making scant eye contact and smiling infrequently.
By ordinary Arkansas standards, Cotton would appear to have committed several fatal political blunders: He questioned the religious faith of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, in a broadcast interview. Famously pious to the point of dullness, Pryor asked for an apology he never got.
With every other statewide political candidate attending the annual Bradley "Pink Tomato Festival," Cotton was a no-show. Instead, he graced a Koch Brothers-financed event at a luxury hotel in California, receiving applause for his "courage" in voting against the 2014 Farm Bill.
After a tornado devastated Mayflower and Vilonia, Arkansas, last spring, President Obama visited the disaster site to commiserate and promise help. Mark Pryor, too. Cotton stayed away.
"I don't think Arkansas needs to bail out the Northeast," he'd explained. Cotton also voted against funding FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Administration. He said the nation couldn't afford it.
Cotton voted against funding for Arkansas Children's Hospital, the nationally known pediatric teaching wing of the University of Arkansas Medical School. Stung by criticism, he alibied that his vote hadn't cost the hospital a dime. Because his side lost, the candidate neglected to mention.
Normally, any two of these blunders -- and there are more -- would doom even a personable candidate. But Cotton isn't running against Sen. Mark Pryor, a cautiously moderate Democrat and the son of the universally popular former governor and U.S. Sen. David Pryor.
Instead Cotton is running against Barack Obama. Not the real President Obama so much as the Kenyan Usurper of Tea Party and Club for Growth fame, an alien presence whose wild overspending threatens fiscal ruin. If, as polls show, 54 percent of Americans incorrectly believe the yearly federal budget deficit has mushroomed since Obama took office in 2009, the proportion of misinformed Arkansans is doubtless higher.
Dislike of President Obama has grown almost cultlike among white Arkansas voters. Although everybody's heartily sick of the unending barrage of outside-funded TV ads for both candidates, Cotton's relentlessly push one theme: a vote for Mark Pryor is a vote for Barack Obama.
And yet the race remains extremely close. Politics can be a dirty business, all right.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.