Cotton joined the ranks of prospective 2024 Republican presidential candidates to make early visits Tuesday when he appeared at a state GOP event at Jim Dean’s Classic Car Museum in Sioux Center, in Iowa’s northwestern corner.
The stop was punctuated by an only-in-Iowa ending: Cotton and longtime Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley went through Grassley’s workout routine onstage, doing 22 push-ups face-to-face while the state’s other Republican senator, Joni Ernst, counted them off.
Cotton’s 20-minute stump speech offered a preview of the themes the senator could emphasize as a candidate. He attacked critical race theory, a decades-old concept that recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish. The theory has become the subject of attacks from Republicans — who have at times mischaracterized the concept and how it is taught — in recent months. Some GOP state legislatures have moved to ban it from schools.
Cotton said critical race theory “may be the most dangerous theory of all.”
“If we put the brakes on the Biden agenda, if we win in 2024, that’s all for the better. If we, however, let the left indoctrinate an entire generation of our kids to hate America, what will we have gained?” Cotton said.
He was the latest in a steady stream of 2024 Republican presidential prospects to visit Iowa. Already, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Florida’s Sen. Rick Scott are among the potential contenders to make stops in the state in 2021.
Former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley took top billing at a state GOP event last week.
And former Vice President Mike Pence, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Pompeo are set to visit Iowa next month for the Family Leadership Summit, an event hosted by the organization led by prominent Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats. Pence will also headline the Feenstra Family picnic in Sioux Center.
The early jockeying underscores the two-track reality of the GOP’s 2024 race: Ambitious Republicans are positioning themselves in case former President Donald Trump does not run again. But Trump himself is teasing a bid to return to office — and the party’s base has not yet moved on from his lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Still, a Trump decision could be years away. And if he passes, it would leave a wide-open field — which has possible candidates speaking with party leaders and operatives and banking favors early.
Cotton timed his trip to the launch of a new political program called Veterans to Victory, which will align the senator’s political and fundraising muscle behind Republican military veterans running for House and Senate seats in 2022.
Among the first three candidates to receive the backing of Cotton’s initiative is Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Army veteran who won Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District race in 2020 by just six votes.
Cotton also made a stop Tuesday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — the home state of a potential 2024 presidential rival in Noem — for a luncheon hosted by the state GOP.
Cotton began by promising he wouldn’t pander to the crowd. “I’m just going to say I’m the only one who loves you so much that I married a girl born in Iowa,” he said, adding that his wife, who grew up in Nebraska, was born in a hospital in Iowa’s nearby Sioux City.
Missing from Cotton’s speech: any mention of Trump, the figure who towers over the GOP’s 2024 race.
Cotton did not repeat any of Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election’s outcome. But he did emphasize many familiar Trump themes, hammering what he called a “hostile media” and accusing Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris of having “inherited the most secure border in modern times” and failing to keep it secure.
He peppered his speech with tough talk on China, saying the country “has been up to no good for a very long time.”
“It’s time, ladies and gentlemen, to lower the boom on China for their decades of lying and cheating and stealing and yes, unleashing a plague on the world,” Cotton said.
He said China “basically ended the traditions of freedom in Hong Kong. … They did it because Hong Kong is a democracy of Chinese citizens on Chinese soil, and they will not tolerate that in the world, just like they cannot tolerate that Taiwan is a democracy of Chinese citizens on Chinese soil.”
“Never forget that China is run by a Marxist, Leninist, communist dictatorship,” Cotton said, comparing China to the Soviet Union and Cuba.
He also gave Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann what he wanted to hear: a commitment to support Iowa’s continued status as the first state to cast votes in the Republican nominating process, even as Democrats reconsider after the state’s 2020 vote-counting debacle.
“Why should there be any change to Republicans’ first-in-the-nation status just because the Democrats can’t run a caucus?” Cotton said.
He said Iowa has played its role as the first state to hold caucuses for decades. “That develops more than just a custom or a habit — it develops a tradition, really, of civic engagement,” Cotton said.