WASHINGTON—In 2008, when Barack Obama captured the White House, Bill Cassidy taught medical students in Louisiana, Steve Daines worked for a technology company in Montana, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas fought in Afghanistan. Six years later, the three Republicans are running to seize Democratic-held Senate seats in Republican-leaning states.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats this November to control the Senate. In the GOP’s favor: Democrats must defend 21 of the 35 Senate seats up for reelection. In Democrats’ favor: Cassidy, Cotton, and Daines are vying for seats that have been in Democratic hands since 1883 in Louisiana, since 1913 in Montana, and for 131 of the last 137 years in Arkansas. Moreover, Cotton’s opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, and Cassidy’s opponent, Sen. Mary Landrieu, both come from storied political families in their respective states.
Take a closer look, though, and the mountain does not seem insurmountable. Two years ago Mitt Romney won Louisiana by 17 points and Arkansas by more than 23. That same year Republicans took control of the Arkansas legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Polls have shown Daines with a double-digit lead in Montana over his opponent, Democrat John Walsh, who is facing charges of plagiarism in a final paper for the U.S. Army War College.
All three candidates not only have political positions with appeal in their states but appealing lives as well.
WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA hit in 2005, Bill Cassidy spent the first 24 hours cleaning up his house. The electricity was out. Phones jammed. The population of Baton Rouge had doubled overnight with evacuees driven inland by the storm.
Clearing debris from his yard, Cassidy heard a radio plea for doctors. Cassidy, a professor of medicine with Louisiana State University, spent three days helping displaced patients get their dialysis and chemotherapy treatments. Then, learning that thousands of new patients were headed his way, Cassidy converted an abandoned Kmart into a field hospital.
The place hadn’t been used in four years. Grease and grime covered the floor. Half the lights were busted out and the transformer was inadequate. Cassidy went to several churches looking for volunteers. A church maintenance worker recruited electricians and plumbers while others spent 24 hours cleaning up to make way for the busloads of wounded.
Cassidy’s response to the 2005 storm wasn’t his first experience with people facing hard times. Nearly 20 years ago he founded the Greater Baton Rouge Community Clinic for the uninsured. The organizers decided against the expense of a building and devised a “virtual” clinic by integrating the uninsured patients into the doctors’ regular practices. The uninsured had set appointments, which helped them keep jobs because they didn’t have the long waits at public hospitals.
Cassidy’s heart for the poor can be traced to his childhood. His dad had gone from job to job in town after town, sometimes falling behind on house payments. The family settled in Louisiana, but the teenage Cassidy wasn’t a serious student until he suffered a cancer scare. The tests came back negative, but the care of his doctors made Cassidy think about medicine.
“God used that in my life,” he says: “Otherwise I never would have been exposed to medicine.” Cassidy cleaned up his grades and headed to LSU, where he also received his medical degree. Raised Episcopalian, Cassidy, 56, is now a member of Chapel on the Campus, an evangelical church where he and his family teach Sunday school for 4- and 5-year-olds. He met his wife, Laura, at a Bible study in Los Angeles where Cassidy did his medical residency at a hospital for the uninsured.
In 2008, GOP officials asked Cassidy to run for a House seat. He and Laura, a surgeon, prayed, and she told him, “The future of healthcare is going to be decided in the next four to eight years, and you ought to be there.” Her prediction came true. Cassidy won election to the House the same fall that Obama won the White House. Obamacare was soon born. Now Cassidy wants to move to the Senate to roll back some of Obamacare’s mandates.
STEVE DAINES, 51, likes to climb mountains. He scaled the 12,807-foot Granite Peak, Montana’s highest mountain, and Wyoming’s Grand Teton. He proposed to his wife, Cindy, while on top of a 10,000-foot summit, Hyalite Peak, south of Bozeman. His adventurous spirit traces back five generations to when his great-great-great-grandmother immigrated to Montana from Norway. A widow with seven children when she arrived in Montana, she homesteaded in the northern part of the state near Great Falls.
Daines grew up in Bozeman and attended Montana State University. He earned a degree in chemical engineering but found time for politics, serving as president of the school’s college Republicans his senior year. In 1984 he was one of the youngest delegates at the Republican National Convention in Texas, where the GOP renominated Ronald Reagan.
Daines left politics behind during a nearly 30-year career in business that sent his family to Hong Kong and China, where he worked to expand global markets for companies like Proctor & Gamble. He returned to Montana to work for the family’s construction business before joining the executive team of a Bozeman cloud-based software company.
Daines made a splash on the state scene in 2007 when he launched a grassroots effort to pressure Montana’s governor to return the state’s nearly billion-dollar surplus to taxpayers: “I was always taught in business that if you overcharged a customer you should give them back their money.” His Giveitback.com website helped get half of the money returned to the taxpayers while the other half went into a rainy day fund.
Daines belongs to Springhill Presbyterian Church in Bozeman: The pastor there is a hunting buddy. Daines and his wife host a small group in their home on Sunday nights. He lost to the incumbent Democrat in a 2008 bid for lieutenant governor but won an open House seat in 2012. The first bill he introduced in the House said if Congress didn’t balance the budget within a decade then lawmakers wouldn’t get paid: “I think we should be hitting members of Congress in their pocketbooks.”
IN THE LATE 1990S, Tom Cotton was the rarest of students at Harvard: a farm boy from Arkansas who had spent hours kicking bales of hay from the back of a truck and freeing calves stuck in the ice at his father’s farm outside Dardanelle, a town in Yell County. If that didn’t make him stand out enough, he decided to become a conservative columnist for the Harvard Crimson.
“Maybe the only way you can get through Harvard and remain a political conservative is to go in as one,” said Cotton, who returned to Harvard for law school. Then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 during his final year in law school: “Our country was attacked, and I wanted to go fight the war. It was not that complicated.” But his parents thought otherwise. His dad, who served as an infantryman during Vietnam, worried the war stories he told his son had nudged him toward this new conflict. Cotton finished law school and clerked for a federal judge, then worked at a private practice to pay off his loans so he wouldn’t go into the military with debt.
In 2005 Cotton began Army basic training, declining an offer to become a military lawyer and choosing the infantry. By the middle of 2006 he was serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, leading combat patrols in southern Baghdad as a second lieutenant. On one mission Cotton’s team found a cache of mortars and artillery shells behind the walls of a house. Cotton did not want to destroy the weapons in the dense neighborhood, so his men formed a chain, passed the mortar rounds down the line to the desert several blocks away. There the explosives disposal unit detonated the cache, lighting up the night sky.
After Iraq, Cotton became one of The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, where he led military honor funerals. Most of the ceremonies involved veterans of older wars. Cotton sometimes participated in a funeral where a young widow and her children would mourn an active duty soldier killed in action. He’d also fly to Dover Air Force Base to take charge of a casket team, boarding the plane first to make sure the flags covering the coffins had not shifted during the flight. Cotton volunteered to go to Afghanistan in 2008 where he was awarded a Bronze Star.
Cotton since childhood has been a member of the Methodist church located two blocks from the family farm. Both Cotton and his father were baptized there. Asked how his faith affects his public life, Cotton says he tries to live by Abraham Lincoln’s standard: “I am not trying to get the Lord on my side. I am trying to get on the Lord’s side, whatever His side might be.”
Pursuing a Senate seat at 37, Cotton is accused of trying to climb too fast. “I will plead guilty to being a young man in a hurry,” Cotton said. “There are a lot of problems in Washington that Mark Pryor and Barack Obama have created. Someone needs to be in a hurry to fix them.”