Cochran Fights for His Political Life in Mississippi
Policy + Politics

Cochran Fights for His Political Life in Mississippi

REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Beleaguered Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi played the military card on Monday when he brought in Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a decorated Navy combat pilot, to vouch for Cochran’s long-time service to his country and state and his longtime work on behalf of veterans. “Not only the eyes of the nation - the eyes of the world will be on this election tomorrow,” McCain said in Jackson, Miss.

Last week, the 76-year-old Cochran played the race card – not by exploiting his state’s historic racial divide but by appealing to Democratic black voters to cross the party line and support him in a run-off against Tea Party Republican challenger Chris McDaniel, who is threatening to end Cochran’s nearly four-decade career in the Senate.

Related: GOP Mississippi Run-Off Race Takes Ugly New Turn

Cochran’s plea for crossover support from Democrats was highly unusual in Mississippi. But as Bishop Ronnie C. Crudup Sr., a pastor of the New Horizon Church International and a prominent figure in Jackson’s black community told The New York Times last week, Cochran has steered a lot of federal dollars to the state that have helped minorities. “You’ve got to be willing to cross the line sometimes, and go over to some strange places for our interests.”

Earlier in the campaign, Cochran played the outrage card – attempting to link McDaniel to a sordid episode in which four people were arrested and charged with felony conspiracy for photographing Cochran’s ailing wife in a nursing home – pictures that were used in a political video to further speculation that Cochran had maintained a long-time affair with a Senate staffer.

Cochran has played just about every conceivable card in his deck as he fought an uphill battle for a seventh six-year term in the Senate. It has been a classic generational and ideological clash that pitted an old school Republican against a conservative purist pushing for dramatic change within his party. Most of the state’s establishment Republicans, including former Gov. Haley Barbour and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, have lined up behind Cochran.

Related: Scandal Surrounds Hard-Fought GOP Primary in MS

Cochran’s biggest claim to fame was steering billions of dollars in federal projects and assistance to his economically depressed state. Mississippi has been the beneficiary of scores of highways, bridges, public buildings as well as a wealth of social and anti-poverty programs. Moreover, he obtained generous federal spending for hurricane relief in his state.

Some reporters complained that Cochran was practically sleep walking through the campaign, and seemed badly out of touch with his state. The Atlantic’s Molly Ball wrote a story including an anecdote about the Republican senator having a memory lapse. Ball claimed that Cochran failed to recognize her at an event less than a half-hour after she interviewed him. Cochran’s communications director Jordan Russell later told Business Insider that Ball “should be embarrassed” about the story because “there were hundreds of people standing there” and Cochran had given dozens of interviews.

McDaniel, 41, a lawyer and former conservative radio host, ran a tough, well-financed campaign that portrayed Cochran as out-of-touch with a new era of conservatives and wedded to Washington’s old traditions of pork barrel spending that have helped drive up the debt. McDaniel won the primary by a sliver, 49.5 percent to Cochran’s 49 percent.

Because neither man nailed down 50 percent or more of the vote, they were forced into today’s runoff.

Related: Meet Thad Cochran, an Endangered Senate Republican

The winner will face former Democratic Rep. Travis Childers in the general election. While a Democrat typically stands little chance of winning statewide in the bright red state of Mississippi, Childers will not be a pushover and sports a highly conservative record. As Politico noted, Childers “voted against the Affordable Care Act, opposes new restrictions on gun sales, believes marriage is between a man and a woman, and describes himself as ‘disenchanted’ in many ways with the national Democratic Party.”

Conventional wisdom has McDaniel ahead of Cochran. The latest polls show McDaniel leading by as many as eight percentage points, although one poll has Cochran up by a point. Under state law, the runoff is fairly wide open, meaning that Democrats who didn’t vote in their party’s primary are welcome to cross over and vote for a Republican.

That explains why Cochran’s team has been trying to woo Democrats who didn’t take part in the primary. Because polls suggest the runoff will be quite close, even a thousand votes one way or another could make a huge difference. But, as The New York Times pointed out, “It’s a risky strategy,” one that invites conservative attacks on Cochran for turning to liberal Democrats to hang onto his seat.

Related: Cantor Falls to Tea Party Challenger in VA Upset

Since McDaniel’s primary win, events have dramatically shifted in the Tea Party’s direction, after economics professor David Brat’s startling upset victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June 10 Virginia GOP congressional primary race. Brat came out of nowhere to topple the powerful and well-financed Cantor.

McDaniel was so excited about Brat’s success that he promptly sent out a fundraising message to supporters that stated, “We just beat Eric Cantor,” according to media reports.

If McDaniel can build on Brat’s remarkable populist showing, he will solidify the Tea Party’s political influence this year and likely force his party to move even further to the right on key economic and social issues. With solid backing from outside political groups including the Club for Growth and high-profile endorsements from Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and other conservative luminaries, McDaniel appears en route to victory.

Yet not everyone is writing off Cochran’s chances.

John M. Bruce, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi, senses that the veteran Republican has made a dramatic turnaround since his disastrous showing in the primary and could still pull off a victory. The difference between Cochran’s performance before and after the primary is profound, he said.

“Part of that is because Cochran finally showed up,” Bruce said in an interview on Monday.

Cochran has become far more outspoken on the campaign stump and has brought in some celebrity firepower to boost interest in his race. For instance, Bret Favre, the legendary NFL quarterback and a Mississippi native, has campaigned with Cochran and did a 30-second ad saying, “Thad Cochran always delivers, just like he did during Hurricane Katrina.”

“When Cochran was not really saying anything, it allowed the narrative to sort of flow one way,” noted Bruce. “He made an ad that is pretty much a poke in the eye to the Tea Party folks by saying: Look, I’m here and look at what I do for you, look what I can get for you.”

“It was right in the face of [McDaniel’s contention that] this is all bad, this is all pork,” Bruce added. “It’s saying, look, getting federal dollars here matters, because we’re a poor state. You know, we put in a dollar [in taxes] and we get three dollars back.”

“If you could frame it in a way that people could understand like that, that trumps the abstract of ideology in a lot of cases,” he said.

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