Mississippi braces for political earthquake in Senate GOP runoff

Tea party insurgent Chris McDaniel has momentum as he seeks to unseat Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in Tuesday's GOP runoff in Mississippi. Team Cochran hopes outreach to black voters will save the day.

Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle/AP
Alec Jones straightens a Chris McDaniel signs outside the voting booths at the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss., Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Voters go to the polls Tuesday to vote in the Republican primary runoff election between incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran and McDaniel.

Mississippi’s high-spirited, at times nasty Republican Senate primary runoff has reached decision day – a vote whose result will reverberate far beyond the borders of the Magnolia State.

If insurgent state Sen. Chris McDaniel beats six-term US Sen. Thad Cochran on Tuesday, the tea party movement will have defeated a sitting US senator three straight election cycles. That, coming after the shocking recent defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia in his primary, would lay to rest the notion that anti-establishment fervor among voters has dissipated.  

State Senator McDaniel has the momentum. He came in first in the June 3 primary, slightly ahead of Senator Cochran, but did not win a majority, triggering a runoff. History is on McDaniel’s side: An incumbent who fails to win outright in the first round usually loses in the runoff.

If Cochran manages to win, it will be despite a lackluster start, near nonexistent fundraising before this year, and a fragile public presence. He is an institution in Mississippi politics, and will owe victory to the state GOP establishment, which has carried him on its back – including a late, controversial bid during the runoff to reach out to Democrats, including the state’s large black population. Cochran insiders have their fingers crossed.

“If we do pull this off, it’s one for the record books – and a model for how to grow the party,” says Henry Barbour, the state's Republican national committeeman and co-founder of a super political action committee supporting Cochran. 

Polls suggest McDaniel has a comfortable lead among regular GOP primary voters, but Team Cochran’s full-on effort to woo non-Republicans could bear fruit. In his 42 years in Washington, first in the House, then the Senate, Cochran has been a champion of delivering federal funds to his home state.

To Mississippi Democrats anxious about the possibility of McDaniel heading to Washington, intent on slashing federal spending, voting for Cochran on Tuesday may make sense. The rub is that people who voted in the Democratic primary on June 3 are not eligible to vote in the GOP runoff. Conservative activists plan to serve as poll-watchers, to ensure that those voting are eligible.

Cochran adviser Stuart Stevens says the campaign’s polling shows a tight race. And there’s evidence that turnout may actually rise in the runoff, bucking the norm. Requests for absentee ballots during the three-week runoff period have surpassed those from before the primary.

On the ground, the contrast between the two campaigns could not be more stark. At a McDaniel rally on Sunday, held in the parking lot of a Hobby Lobby store in Biloxi, supporters wore jeans and T-shirts, waved homemade signs, and spoke passionately about their candidate. The 40-something McDaniel wore jeans and scruffy shoes, his shirt untucked.

"Cochran, known as the King of Pork for bringing federal money to Mississippi, doesn't bring money to the citizens of Mississippi or they wouldn't have been consistently ranked the poorest state for his entire 42-year tenure," says Carol Hill, a retired physician from Diamondhead, Miss. "He brings federal money home to his crony friends."

Others said that McDaniel’s goal of cutting Washington spending could mean less money for Mississippians, but they’re OK with that. In fact, they said, it would force Mississippians to be more self-reliant.

If McDaniel wins, “it will probably mean sacrifice,” says Randy Lund, who works for a local cable TV company. “People in the US don’t know how to sacrifice.”

Later in the day, a crowd of Cochran supporters – roughly equal in number to those who turned up for McDaniel – gathered in the lobby of the nearby Gulfport-Biloxi airport to see the senator. The group was more buttoned-down, like the senator, who spoke only a few minutes, and let local politicians do most of the talking, including Rep. Steven Palazzo (R) of Mississippi, who in effect delivered a stump speech for him.

In interviews, local mayors past and present attending the rally spoke of Cochran’s role in securing disaster relief in 2005 when hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

If Cochran loses, “it’s a big unknown,” said Billy Skellie, mayor of Long Beach, Miss. “McDaniel doesn’t want to fund education or anything. How ludicrous can this be?”

Jill Lipski, a teacher from Wool Market, Miss., called herself a longtime supporter of Cochran. “He supports education,” she said. “We need more common sense.”

Another difference between the two rallies: At the McDaniel event, sponsored by Tea Party Express, speaker after speaker exhorted the crowd to bring friends, family, neighbors, anybody, to the polls and “make history.” The “ask” at Cochran events was much less adamant.

That was especially so on Monday, when the state GOP establishment – plus Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona – gathered for a Cochran rally at the Mississippi War Memorial Building in Jackson, the state capital. Elderly veterans sat on stage, which emphasized the 70-something Cochran’s age. One by one, state officials, and Senator McCain, took the podium to honor Cochran for his service. It could have been a retirement event.

In McDaniel’s world, that’s the idea. Thank Cochran, and send him into retirement. If McDaniel wins, it will be an improbable victory in some ways. The recent arrest of McDaniel supporters over photos taken at Cochran’s bedridden wife’s nursing home stopped his momentum for a while, but not forever. An old recording of provocative comments about slaves, women, and Mexicans from McDaniel’s former radio show also didn’t change the game.

When Congressman Cantor lost on June 10, that sent shock waves across the Republican landscape – including the Mississippi race.

“Everyone was energized,” says Noel Fritsch, McDaniel’s spokesman.

Mississippi establishment Republicans look at the young, charismatic state senator, and shake their heads.

“You have to give it to McDaniel – he’s a bit of a Houdini,” says a Cochran insider. “His following is almost like a cult. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

National Democrats are also watching Mississippi closely. Though the state is deep red, and likely to elect the winner of Tuesday’s runoff in November, they still hope McDaniel wins the runoff, then blows up during the general election, as conservative insurgents have done the past two cycles.

The Democratic nominee, former Rep. Travis Childers, is seen as a credible candidate. The national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is prepared to funnel money into the race if McDaniel wins.  

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