Over more than three decades in Congress, Sen. Thad Cochran has brought more than his share of resources home to Mississippi.
“Due to his seniority, when the pie was getting cut, he was holding the knife,” said Brad White, a former state party chairman.
But that did not protect him when state Sen. Chris McDaniel decided to enter the race. Instead, McDaniel has seized on Cochran’s reputation as an earmarker and occasional compromiser — anathema to tea-party Republicans in the party’s base — to gain the backing of influential conservative groups and a political foothold to oust the long-serving senior senator.
Cochran turns 76 Saturday and has not yet announced whether he will retire next year. But if he runs, it will set up a classic battle between a Washington insider used to bringing home the goods for his state and an insurgent outsider playing to ideological voters.
Indeed, establishment Republicans in deep-red Mississippi are already calling on Cochran to seek reelection. Mississippi Republicans say voters in the state know and trust Cochran, who has sealed his reputation as a staunch advocate for their interests.
“His ability to help the state, particularly after Katrina, is really legendary,” said Republican National Committee member Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour. “We wouldn’t have been able to have the sort of recovery we had without Thad Cochcran.”
If Cochran does run for a seventh term, he’s poised to win the backing of the state’s Republican establishment. GOP leaders say he’d almost certainly beat any competitor. But they’re worried enough about McDaniel’s challenge that many of them — including local officials, like mayors and city supervisors — have begun holding private meetings with Cochran to persuade him to run.
The prospect of losing Cochran’s clout and seniority worries many Republicans. Cochran is the senior Republican on the Agriculture Committee, and as Appropriations Committee chairman in 2005 when Katrina hit, he helped secure tens of billions of dollars.
Those kinds of meetings happen ahead of any election year, but they’ve been more “intense” since McDaniel announced his campaign, White said.
“This has never popped up before,” one Mississippi Republican operative said, explaining that Cochran has never faced a credible primary threat. “There’s a lot of encouragement to get Thad in the race.”
At the same time, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth are backing McDaniel and boosting his image as a small-government conservative, suggesting Cochran is part of the problem in Washington.
Baloney, say some Republicans. Although congressional Republicans effectively banned earmarks beginning in the 112th Congress, hampering Cochran’s ability to funnel funds to Mississippi, working to get that money for the state is still part of the job. McDaniel’s camp rejects the suggestion that he would not fight for Mississippi in Washington. Communications director Keith Plunkett called it “laughable” that McDaniel wouldn’t seek aid for the state during a disaster.
“Senator Cochran did his job when he did that,” Plunkett said. “Let’s not forget that it was everyday working Mississippians who were pulling wet Sheetrock off their walls.”
The state Republican Party does not endorse a candidate in the primary, but Cochran’s reputation carries weight. State GOP Chairman Joe Nosef pointed out that if Cochran were to run again, he would probably win, and if Republicans take the majority, he would be in a powerful position on the Appropriations or Agriculture committees.
“I think it would be good for the party,” Nosef said.
Despite a declaration, Cochran has raised almost $850,000 so far this cycle. By contrast, he raised about $2.7 million in the 2008 cycle.
Since launching his campaign in October, though, McDaniel’s allies have shown how potent they can make his candidacy. The two conservative outside groups have spent nearly $500,000 on ads supporting McDaniel, according to media reports.
That’s enough to cause Republicans to worry that a Cochran-McDaniel face-off could become an ugly contest, in which each candidate nicks the other one before the general election.
“We want to avoid a circular firing squad,” Nosef said.