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story.lead_photo.caption Democrat Josh Mahony, who has begun his campaign to unseat Republican Tom Cotton, says his aim is to put "Arkansas first." (Submitted photo)

Democrat Josh Mahony began his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat this week with an Arkansas tour and attacks on incumbent Republican Tom Cotton.

Mahony spoke with the Gazette by phone from the road on Thursday as he traveled from Fort Smith to El Dorado, his home town, for an official launch event. Planned stops on Friday included Monticello, Pine Bluff and Fayetteville, and Hot Springs and Little Rock are slated for today.

Throughout a wide-ranging conversation, Mahony continually returned to his criticisms of Cotton though Arkansas Democrats will not choose their general election nominee until a primary vote in March 2020. No other Democrat so far has said they are running for the seat, but candidates may emerge before the filing deadline in November.

Mahony seems to be positioning himself as the presumptive nominee, starting his media campaign with a two-minute video titled "Terrible Tom Cotton" that compiles negative quotations and media coverage about the senator. As of Friday afternoon, his campaign website included only the ad, a pitch for donations and some biographical information.

"We're certainly going to make an effort to make sure everyone remembers Sen. Cotton's record," Mahony said. "But we want to give people something to vote for."

The campaign's message is "putting Arkansas first," he said, contrasting that approach with an account of Cotton's political career.

"Sen. Cotton, I appreciate him for his military service, but as soon as he ran for office, he's really been running for president this entire time. And he's been working for his donors like Goldman Sachs and the Koch brothers and putting their interests ahead of the people of Arkansas," Mahony said.

He cited recent layoffs in the state by Georgia-Pacific Corp. as an instance when Cotton could have been more of a leader "sticking up for Arkansas."

At the same time, Mahony describes himself as a problem-solver who in office would be more practical than partisan.

"The people of Arkansas need solutions. We don't need people bickering," he said. "I don't care who comes up with a good idea; if it's going to be good for Arkansas, I'm going to support it."

Health care and economic concerns topped Mahony's list of policy priorities.

He wants to keep "the best parts" of the Affordable Care Act, especially the Medicaid funding he said keeps many rural Arkansas hospitals open. He supports a public option for health care coverage and would preserve the private health insurance system for those who want and can afford it. Transparent, negotiable pricing, including for pharmaceuticals, would increase competition and lower costs, he said.

"Nobody in the United States who has insurance in fact should be in a position where they're an illness away from losing everything they own," Mahony said.

Especially in a rural state such as Arkansas, infrastructure development such as road and highway improvements and broadband internet access is essential, Mahony said. Partnerships with senatorial candidates in neighboring states and major Arkansas businesses such as J.B. Hunt, Walmart and Tyson could be a way to leverage more federal funding for projects such as completing Interstate 49 and expanding Arkansas River navigability, he said.

The importance of agriculture to the Arkansas economy makes both trade and climate change policy significant priorities, Mahony said.

Because 50% of the state's agricultural product is exported, trade policy is particularly important in Arkansas, and Mahony would work to rebuild international relationships and recover from the "irreparable harm to farmers" caused by Trump administration trade wars, he said.

Climate change could not only hurt Arkansas agriculture, it could also create domestic refugees for which the state must be prepared, Mahony said. He supports a carbon tax on energy companies to help curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

On immigration, Mahony took a stance for border security and speedy processing of asylum seekers but against family separation, which he called "the worst thing I've seen come out from the government in my lifetime."

"Regardless of how you feel about immigration, we should not be doing this to children. I think everybody can agree on that. I hope Sen. Cotton will, too," he said.

He said immigrants add to the Arkansas economy and should feel safe here, and immigrants brought to the country as children deserve an opportunity to become citizens.

Mahony calls himself a gun enthusiast and advocates for universal background checks before gun sales, but he does not support any other firearms legislation.

The decision whether to have an abortion should be left to women, he said.

"I trust women to make their health care decisions," Mahony said, "and I think a woman ought to have a right to make that decision."

Mahony is a fifth-generation native Arkansan born on a farm in El Dorado, and he owns a natural resources company, according to his campaign website. He is the founder of the New Leaders Council, Arkansas Chapter, which "looks to recruit and train progressive millennial leaders that will one day be the next candidates, political entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders of Arkansas."

In 2018, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Arkansas' 3rd Congressional District and lost to incumbent Republican Steve Womack by more than 30 percentage points.

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