HERNANDO, Miss. — Just more than two weeks out from the Mississippi Senate GOP primary, Sen. Thad Cochran is nowhere to be seen. But his primary challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, is grappling with a controversy that threatens to topple his upstart campaign.
Despite strong support from a number of national conservative groups and a favorable political climate, McDaniel’s gaffe-prone and hapless campaign may be his undoing.
And despite having the full muscle of both former Gov. Haley Barbour and current Gov. Phil Bryant’s political operations behind him in the race, Cochran faces a general apathy among supporters and vehement dislike among detractors. And he has done little himself to excite the former or soothe the latter.
Indeed, he spent this past weekend off the campaign trail, stopping back home on Friday, canceling public events on Saturday and jetting back to Washington on Sunday. Meanwhile, McDaniel zigzagged the state at craft fairs, church services and barbecues.
Cochran reportedly makes stops primarily for official business or other largely unannounced events. Though his campaign spokesman told a reporter he had a full slate of events planned for Saturday, the spokesman would disclose only one publicly, and Cochran canceled that appearance after the arrest of the blogger accused of taping his wife. Cochran’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview, and attempts to find him in the Capitol during votes were unsuccessful.
Multiple polls released this week from groups supporting McDaniel showed it to be a tight race, with one showing McDaniel up by 4 points.
Cochran’s supporters have also warned that if he’s defeated, McDaniel’s candidacy could put the seat into play for Democrats. Indeed, the Democratic Party is prepared for that possibility, having convinced former Rep. Travis Childers to jump into the race.
Many locals echoed Shannon Campbell, 43, selling wooden birdhouses and cutting boards, who said she thought of McDaniel as a regular guy, not a politician.
“He seems a little more genuine,” she said of the challenger. “It does matter to me how genuine they seem and whether they really want to talk you.”
And Cochran? “I have not spoken to the other gentleman.”
The Jester and the Gentleman
That’s how many Mississippians said they see Cochran — as the gentleman in the race, but one they don’t really know.
It’s a perception that could be both an asset and a liability for him as he battles McDaniel for the nomination. McDaniel’s supporters have been working to turn the gentleman label around, painting Cochran as out of touch.
He’s drawn ire over votes to raise the debt limit and his own pay, and to fund ObamaCare. McDaniel frames his campaign as a last stand for conservatives.
“[National conservative groups] see in you the opportunity to lead a conservative revival, a resurgence, one last line in the sand here in Mississippi to restore our country,” McDaniel told a crowd of about 30 at a small food market in Brookhaven.
And McDaniel is relying on the anti-gentleman demographic to drive him to a win. On the campaign trail, McDaniel’s supporters were mostly middle class, often unemployed or retired, looking for a change and someone who understands them.
McDaniel is banking on the belief that, after those four decades in Washington, Cochran doesn’t.
But Cochran’s long tenure means he’s next in line for the Appropriations Committee chairmanship if the GOP wins a Senate majority, a real possibility this election cycle. His supporters tout that position of unparalleled power as the antidote to Mississippi’s myriad economic and social woes.
But Cochran supporters have sought to paint McDaniel anything but, more of a gaffe-prone jester than a gentleman.
They’ve labeled McDaniel a flip-flopper on earmarks and tort reform, and recently sent out talking mailers highlighting controversial quotes from his time as a radio talk-show host.
When Cochran campaign manager Jordan Russell was asked what the campaign’s winning argument was, one of the first things he said praised the senator’s character.
“He’s never embarrassed us. He’s a good man and a gentleman and people appreciate him, and they know the good work he’s done for this state,” he said. Of McDaniel, Russell added, “He’s never done anything but stick his finger in the wind.”
The grass roots vs. establishment grudge match
Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and an adviser to a super-PAC boosting Cochran’s campaign, admitted that Cochran’s organization “needs to wake up.”
“The McDaniel people are more intense than the Cochran people, but the Cochran people outnumber the McDaniel people,” he said from behind a cluttered desk in a downtown Jackson high-rise.
Barbour’s desk was piled with papers, a laptop and various mailers his group, Mississippi Conservatives PAC, has sent to in the state blasting McDaniel. If Cochran wins on June 3, his group could take much of the credit. It began releasing ads in early January to give Cochran cover, spending more than $1 million driving that home.
Cochran has the endorsement of every elected Republican in the state and has likely collected numerous favors he can call in after four decades in office.
In contrast, McDaniel’s campaign is managed by a fellow state senator and friend, and his short tenure in the Statehouse means he has few longstanding political alliances in the state to boost his candidacy.
He has received the backing of the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and a handful of others. While the Club is spending for McDaniel, the Fund has spent just a fraction of the nearly $1 million it invested on its losing candidate in Kentucky.
The devil you know
Ultimately, McDaniel’s Achilles’s heel may be the fact that he’s still relatively unknown. Mississippians asked about the Senate race this weekend often referred to “Thad and that other guy.” Of more than a dozen attendees at the Hernando crafts fair, only two said they were paying close attention to the race.
It’s a question, for some, of whether the devil Mississippians know is better than the devil they don’t.
“Right now it could go either way,” said James McCullough, a 76-year-old Hernando resident selling bone pens at the fair.
“Sometimes I think we ought to elect all new people and get the old ones out of there and see if that makes a difference, because they don’t seem to be doing a good job. But if we elect someone new and they take five or six years to get their feet on the ground and then they’re in the same shape, well …” he trailed off.
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