Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) primary challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, suggested on Monday that Cochran may face questions over his residency similar to those that have dogged — and in one case, toppled — other senators with primary challengers.
Speaking to reporters at a gathering of conservative candidates hosted by FreedomWorks on Monday, McDaniel said his campaign was "watching...very carefully" whether Cochran maintains a residence in the state in a response to a question about other senators who had lapses.
But McDaniel said he had never seen Cochran in Mississippi during his seven years in the state Senate, and cited anecdotal accounts from friends and supporters on the campaign trail “who have never physically laid eyes on him.”
“That’s the reality, and that begs the question, how could one be responsive to the local people if he doesn’t know the will of the people?” he said. “We’re watching that very carefully — he’s almost never in the state.”
He later added: “There are people my age that haven’t seen him, ever. And he came to my area for the first time in 24 years just a few days ago,” he added.
McDaniel’s main rationale for running has been Cochran’s long tenure in Congress, and he’s argued that the senator is out of touch with the state — an argument that would gain legs if McDaniel were able to prove outright that Cochran is never back home in the state.
Cochran’s campaign brushed off the suggestion that he’s not in the state often enough.
"That is too absurd for a response," said Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell.
Russell also said Cochran owns a home, where he lives when he’s in the state, in Oxford, Miss., and is a registered voter there. The senator was last in the state during the Jan. 22 recess and had 11 campaign stops over four days, according to his campaign, at which he spoke to hundreds of constituents and supporters.
But the residency question is an issue that helped defeat former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in a primary last cycle and contributed Republicans ultimately ceding the seat to Democrats, in part because the eventual nominee, Richard Mourdock, made untimely comments about rape and pregnancy just weeks before Election Day.
Concerns over similarly weak candidates making it through to the general election and costing Republicans winnable seats have contributed to a concerted effort by establishment Republicans to beat back conservative insurgent candidates in competitive races.
The Mississippi seat is expected to remain safely in Republican hands even if McDaniel defeats Cochran in the primary, but the senator is receiving substantial support from the establishment wing of the party to fend off the challenge regardless.
Still, Cochran has been appraised as the incumbent most vulnerable to a primary challenge this cycle, and his fourth-quarter fundraising numbers — he was outraised by his challenger — underscore the challenge he faces in keeping his seat.
The residency issue reared its head again last week, when it was reported that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kans.), also facing a primary challenge, doesn’t live in Kansas and in fact pays rent to two donors when returning for brief stints to, he joked, “have full access to the recliner.”
Though he does in fact own a home there, he rents it out. His primary challenger, radiologist Milton Wolf, this weekend decried Roberts’ “audacity to ask the very Kansans he has abandoned to support his bid to stay in Washington for a fifth decade.”
—This piece was updated at 3 p.m. to reflect comment from Cochran's campaign.