Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, Underdog?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 4, 2014 · 9:00 AM EDT

Forget about Matt Bevin’s challenge to Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Republican primary or Milton Wolf’s bid to knock off Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts in that state’s GOP contest. The Senate primary to watch is Mississippi’s.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel has the best chance of any anti-establishment Senate hopeful to knock off an incumbent, and the defeat of six-term Senate veteran Thad Cochran would send shock waves through both the national media and the Republican Party.

Cochran, the first Republican popularly elected to the Senate in the state’s history, is an institution in the Magnolia State and has the support of most Mississippi GOP officeholders, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former Gov. Haley Barbour. And Barbour’s nephew, Henry Barbour, is running the super PAC established to get the senator re-elected.

Cochran, 76, is in trouble — in deep trouble — primarily because of changes in the Republican Party. But it’s also true that the senator, and his campaign, didn’t start his re-election effort where they needed to be.

It’s not as if Mississippi Republicans dislike Cochran. Even his critics say that his standing in the party is good. But Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana also had excellent personal ratings, even when he was defeated for re-nomination by Richard Mourdock in 2012. Voters liked Lugar and respected his contributions to the state, but they chose not to re-hire him for another term.

Cochran was first elected to Congress in 1972. Six years later, he won a three-way contest (with only 45 percent) for an open Senate seat. In 1984, Cochran faced his last serious race. He defeated former Gov. William Winter, a Democrat, comfortably with 61 percent to 39 percent. That was 30 years ago.

Cochran’s subsequent easy re-election victories won’t help him this year. In fact, they are now a liability.

“Thad is very rusty,” said one sympathetic Republican. “He has no real organization, and he’s lost touch over the years.”

Still, Cochran, whose style is inherently low-key, is running as energetically as he can, and he has a campaign team that knows the state and how to win elections. But that may not be enough.

The senator’s bigger problem is changes in the GOP and the grassroots’s expectations.

When Cochran was first elected to Congress, members were expected to “bring home the bacon” to their districts or states. That is what Southern Democrats did, and Southern Republicans continued the tradition. The region, after all, was poor and relied on federal spending to boost local economies. So while the GOP faithful whined about federal spending, deficits and debt, they were more concerned about getting their “fair share” of federal dollars.

During the past decade, that changed dramatically. Republican voters started placing a higher priority on dismantling government and cutting taxes and spending, even if it meant their state would no longer get goodies from Capitol Hill. Anti-establishment groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund drove that message and demanded that GOP officeholders follow the new model.

Cochran, a former chairman of both the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture committees, built his career on bringing federal money back to his state, which continued to have the lowest median household income in the nation in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Earmarks have always been the favored vehicle for senators and appropriators, so it isn’t at all surprising that Cochran has a lengthy history of using them. But now, many conservatives see earmarks as a sign of fiscal irresponsibility and “old style” politics. And that makes Cochran a target.

Cochran’s 2013 score from the Club for Growth was 56 percent. Only two GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, had lower scores.

While today’s conservatives see compromise as violating principle and working with Democrats as a sign of weakness, Cochran has always worked across the aisle, as he did recently on the farm bill with Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan.

And instead of peppering his public comments with fiery, explosive language aimed at demonizing his opponents and energizing his party’s base, Cochran has remained ever the dignified, deferential Southern gentleman that he has been throughout his career.

Those qualities are no longer valued by some in politics.

Chris McDaniel, 41, was elected to the Mississippi state Senate in 2007 and re-elected four years later. He also hosted a conservative radio talk show, first in Hattiesburg and then syndicated nationally. His legislative district stretches from north of Hattiesburg up to an area north of Laurel, putting his political base squarely in Jones County.

The state legislator is articulate, confident and polished. But he is more slick than smooth, and he displays little personal warmth or humility. Critics call him a “plaintiff’s attorney” and complain that he has been hypocritical when it comes to capping jury awards.

But what McDaniel does have is an appealing message, especially to conservatives who feel that Washington doesn’t listen to them and doesn’t reflect their values and interest.

“He’s a bit of a political evangelist. He knows what people want to hear, and he gives it to them. He has only one gear, and it’s great with the tea party crowd and with those Republicans who have had it with Washington,” said one Mississippi Republican who is in Cochran’s corner but is realistic about the seriousness of the threat to the senator.

McDaniel needs to roll up big margins in the Hattiesburg area (Lamar, Forrest and Jones counties), win in blue-collar Jackson County (Pascagoula) and get a big vote out of fast-growing, suburban DeSoto County, a Memphis suburb where voters identify more with Tennessee than with Cochran and Mississippi.

Cochran should do well in Northeastern Mississippi (Tupelo), the Delta (the agricultural area of the state) and metropolitan Jackson, the state’s largest city. He also needs to roll up good margins in Harrison County (Biloxi and Gulfport), the second largest county in the state.

If Cochran does win, it may well be because libertarian McDaniel initially hesitated to say that he would have supported Katrina aid, which was so crucial to rebuilding Mississippi’s coast after the hurricane. Cochran’s allies jumped on the challenger for that, possibly costing him crucial support along the Gulf coast.

This race isn’t complicated. It pits a pragmatic, traditional Southern Republican against an anti-establishment “Constitutional” conservative who opposes compromise and won’t vote for any solution short of dismantling government.

A small turnout probably favors McDaniel, while a big one should benefit Cochran. The senator’s strategists are concerned that Cochran’s supporters don’t yet understand the seriousness of McDaniel’s challenge, and the challenger’s supporters are confident that the energy is with their candidate. As one McDaniel ally put it, “Who’ll vote for Thad energetically?”

The super PAC that supports Cochran has been on the attack, trying to make McDaniel personally unacceptable to state voters who otherwise agree with his anti-Washington, anti-establishment message.

But tea party and libertarian Republican groups are likely to ramp up their spending as the June 3 Mississippi primary approaches. And their message will be loud and clear: Thad Cochran’s time is past and only Chris McDaniel will shake up Washington and change the culture on Capitol Hill.

And that is an incredibly powerful message to Republicans these days.

Cochran probably leads the race right now, but even his allies are uncertain whether he can survive the upcoming attacks.

“I am genuinely concerned,” said one of the senator’s supporters in the state. “There is no question who the political environment favors,” he said, making it clear that there was no need to identify that candidate.