Election 2014: Mississippi Senate race is tea party’s best shot at victory

Longtime Sen. Thad Cochran faces a strong tea party challenge in the Republican primary. The state GOP establishment has rallied to support him, but the tea party has the energy on the ground.

Jonathan Bachman/Reuters
Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel speaks during a town hall meeting in Ocean Springs, Miss., on March 18. Polls show a close race against six-term Sen. Thad Cochran, just two months before the June 3 GOP primary.

Will Thad Cochran, a six-term incumbent in the US Senate, be the next establishment Republican to lose his job to a tea-party insurgent?

That’s the burning question in Mississippi, the only state this election cycle where a tea party-backed candidate has a shot at taking out an incumbent senator in a Republican primary. The race has become a magnet for outside groups and money. It also presents a high-stakes test of tea party clout, as the movement fights claims that it is a waning force.

Republicans have seen this movie before. In 2012, long-serving Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana lost to a tea-party-backed candidate in the primary, who then lost to the Democrat in the general election.

Mississippi’s Republican establishment has rallied around Cochran to fend off state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R). At the center is the Barbour family. Henry Barbour, the state’s GOP national committeeman, co-founded a “super PAC” to support Cochran with ads and counter Mr. McDaniel’s attacks. His brother, Austin Barbour, is a senior adviser to the Cochran campaign. Their uncle, former Gov. Haley Barbour, is wielding his considerable fundraising skills, both in Mississippi and in Washington, D.C.

In Senator McDaniel’s corner is the Mississippi tea party, with affiliated groups around the state that bring energy to the state senator’s ground game. From Washington, the conservative Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund are backing McDaniel with TV ads, and FreedomWorks is helping Mississippi tea partyers with yard signs and door hangers. Turnout in primaries is typically low, and so motivating voters is key.  

“McDaniel supporters are fired up, and they’re working hard,” says Henry Barbour, in an interview in his office in downtown Jackson. “Candidly, most of the Cochran voters are asleep. And that’s my biggest concern.”

In February, a poll by the Mississippi Democratic Party showed McDaniel at 44 percent and Cochran at 43 percent. Now, two months before the June 3 primary, private polling shows Cochran ahead of McDaniel in the high single digits. A Rasmussen poll released March 31 showed that Cochran and McDaniel would each defeat the likely Democratic nominee, former Rep. Travis Childers, handily. (Cochran would win 48-31. McDaniel would win 47-35.)

But as the primary ramps up, many Mississippi voters still aren’t paying attention. And so the race is on to define the Republicans. The challenge for each is different. Cochran has been in Congress since McDaniel was a baby, first in the House for six years, then in the Senate for more than 35 years. His is a household name – one that appears on many public buildings around Mississippi.

During his decades in Washington, Cochran has made channeling federal funds to Mississippi a major focus, be it for hurricane Katrina relief, military bases, or farmers. If Republicans win back the Senate in November, Cochran would chair the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2015.

But apparently the second-longest-serving GOP senator in Washington hasn’t kept up much with internal Republican politics. He has said more than once that he doesn’t know much about the tea party – a sign that he’s not interested in their views, Mississippi tea party leaders say.  

Tea partyers are also concerned that if Cochran wins reelection, he won’t finish his term, allowing the governor to fill the seat with another establishment Republican.

The best way for Cochran to reassure Mississippians and defeat McDaniel, says Austin Barbour, is to get the senator back to Mississippi as much as possible.

“What we need to do, and what we’re beginning to do, is make sure that when Senator Cochran is in the state, he goes and sees people,” says Mr. Barbour, speaking in his office, one floor below his brother’s. “He needs to remind them of what he’s done and will continue to do. Unfortunately, he’s in D.C. a lot.”

McDaniel – a six-year state senator, trial lawyer, and former nationally syndicated talk radio host – has mostly stuck to Mississippi, appearing at town halls, college campuses, and local Republican groups. His rhetoric centers on the tea party language of freedom, liberty, the Constitution, and Cochran’s less-than-hardline voting record.

He has also sat for numerous press interviews, at times inadvertently providing fodder for Cochran ads. In a comment to Politico in February, he appeared to hesitate over Katrina aid legislation in 2005, saying he “probably would have supported it,” but didn’t know enough about it. An uproar ensued.

McDaniel says his comments were taken out of context. “Absolutely, I’m for disaster relief for tragedies the magnitude of Katrina,” he said, in an interview with the Monitor. “That is a core power of the central government.”

On the larger question of why he would take on a long-serving senator guaranteed reelection in a solid red state, McDaniel said the people of Mississippi “understand that the country is in trouble,” and that Congress needs to be refreshed.

“New courage, new blood, new ideas, it’s all very important and instrumental to a free people retaining control of their government,” McDaniel said. “They understand that.”

If elected, he says, his model would be tea party Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, both in style and substance. Cochran is no firebrand, and his voting record puts him in the middle of the political pack. In National Journal’s rating, he’s the 34th most conservative senator. To hardline conservatives, that makes him a liberal.

When McDaniel announced he was running last October, he hit Cochran for taking part in the compromise that ended the federal government shutdown. “I’ve got 17 trillion reasons not to compromise,” he said, referring to the federal debt.

Aside from his comments on Katrina aid, McDaniel’s take on federal spending might be his toughest sell to his state’s voters. After all, Mississippi ranks consistently at or near the top of states that get the most federal money per capita. But political analysts say Mississippians aren’t bothered by that.

“It’s historically true of the South. You send them to Congress young, and keep them there to die of old age,” says Joe Parker, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. “Through seniority, they bring home the bacon.”

When asked whether Mississippi needs to become more self-reliant, McDaniel talks about the nation as a whole.

“All 50 states have to become more self-reliant,” McDaniel says. “Utah for example has some dependency. So does New Jersey.”

Ask Henry Barbour what really scares him about McDaniel, and it’s more than just the possibility he could defeat Cochran. If nominated, McDaniel could lose the election in November, Barbour says.

Mr. Childers, the Democrat, is the strongest pick his party could have hoped for in a long-shot bid. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report ranks Cochran’s seat “likely Republican,” one click less safe than “solid Republican.”   

Noel Fritsch, McDaniel’s communications director, says a McDaniel loss to Mr. Childers is “metaphysically impossible.” McDaniel himself points to the 2008 election, a big Democratic year, when former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) took on the state’s newly appointed senator, Roger Wicker (R). Mr. Musgrove lost by 10 points.

Still, Barbour worries the less-experienced McDaniel might slip up in the general, were he to win the nomination, just as other tea-party backed Republicans lost races the party could have won in 2010 and 2012. An improbable Republican loss in Mississippi would complicate the GOP’s drive to take control of the Senate.

If McDaniel gets the GOP nomination, Barbour says, “I think it’s a 50-50 race at that point.”

Barbour’s alarm bells may in part be aimed at donors. But as the old political saying goes, you’re either running unopposed or you’re running scared. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.