The Mississippi Gamble

The Republican Party of the South has changed under Thad Cochran’s feet.

UNITED STATES - MAY 30: Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is interviewed outside of Methodist Olive Branch Hospital, after a tour of the facility in Olive Branch, Miss., May 30, 2014. 
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 5, 2014, 5 p.m.

Over the last few weeks, it has been hard to watch six-term Sen. Thad Co­chran fight for polit­ic­al sur­viv­al in Mis­sis­sippi’s Re­pub­lic­an primary without think­ing of some of the lyr­ics from Kenny Ro­gers’s song “The Gam­bler.” In the second stanza, we hear an old-timer say, “Son, I’ve made a life out of read­in’ people’s faces, know­in’ what the cards were by the way they held their eyes. So if you don’t mind me say­in,’ I can see you are out of aces. For a taste of your whis­key, I’ll give you some ad­vice.” The chor­us, as most people over a cer­tain age know, is: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

This past Tues­day, Co­chran was forced in­to a primary run­off, sched­uled for June 24. With 99.8 per­cent of the vote coun­ted, Coch­ran stands at 49.0 per­cent, to 49.4 per­cent for his chal­lenger, law­yer and talk-show host Chris McDaniel. A third can­did­ate, former Re­altor Thomas Carey, re­ceived 1.5 per­cent of the vote. Al­though elec­tions in­volve hu­man be­ha­vi­or and opin­ions, which are fickle and sub­ject to change, Co­chran’s chances of pre­vail­ing in the run­off don’t look par­tic­u­larly good.

McDaniel’s chal­lenge was rap­idly gain­ing steam un­til three weeks ago, when it was dis­closed that tea-party act­iv­ists — who were sup­port­ive of McDaniel but who may or may not have been act­ing in con­cert with the chal­lenger’s cam­paign — slipped in­to a nurs­ing home and video­taped foot­age of Co­chran’s wife, who has been suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia for a long time.

However, as the primary neared, the harm to McDaniel’s cam­paign seemed to wear off, and his mo­mentum re­sumed. While the nurs­ing-home ker­fuffle may have been the break Co­chran needed, it came out too early to have a last­ing im­pact on primary day. And then, just as the nurs­ing-home video flap sub­sided, re­marks by Co­chran aboard his cam­paign bus to The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Dan Balz cre­ated a head­ache for the Co­chran team. It also was a sign that the in­cum­bent’s abil­ity to stay on script and avoid mis­takes may not be what it once was.

Co­chran was asked about the Af­ford­able Care Act, which is wildly un­pop­u­lar among Mis­sis­sippi Re­pub­lic­ans. He re­spon­ded, “I think we need to mon­it­or any fed­er­al pro­grams that provide ser­vices and as­sist­ance to people who need help, and this is an ex­ample of an im­port­ant ef­fort by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to help make health care avail­able, ac­cess­ible, and af­ford­able.”

He con­tin­ued, “We have prob­ably one of the best health care sys­tems in the coun­try, in the world, and we’ll need to con­tin­ue to work to make sure it meets the ex­pect­a­tions and needs of the Amer­ic­an people. I’m glad to be in­volved in that ef­fort.”

The Co­chran cam­paign moved in­to dam­age-con­trol mode, sug­gest­ing that the sen­at­or thought the ques­tion was about vet­er­ans’ health care. But even giv­ing him every be­ne­fit of the doubt, mis­takes such as these can cost elec­tions. At the very least, in these later in­nings, Co­chran was lob­bing grapefruits, not fast­balls, across the plate. Former Mis­sis­sippi Gov. and Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Haley Bar­bour and his neph­ew Henry Bar­bour were try­ing everything to get Co­chran in­to the next in­ning. However, even with the best of their ef­forts, it just wasn’t enough.

The na­tion­al GOP es­tab­lish­ment is torn between un­der­stand­able loy­alty to Co­chran and aver­sion to McDaniel on the one hand, and a prag­mat­ic read­ing that throw­ing good money after bad makes little sense when this money will be needed in the gen­er­al elec­tion against Demo­crats. Bar­ring dis­clos­ure of some per­son­al pec­ca­dillos on McDaniel’s part, he is go­ing to be the GOP stand­ard-bear­er in Novem­ber. What kind of shape he emerges in after the primary dust has settled will de­term­ine wheth­er former Rep. Trav­is Childers, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, has a chance to pick off the seat, or if GOP money will be needed more in oth­er states.

Los­ing would be a sad end for a proud man with a dis­tin­guished re­cord of ser­vice to his state and the coun­try and to the is­sues that Co­chran has cared so much about. To me, he was part of a trans­ition­al gen­er­a­tion of sen­at­ors who came just after or to­ward the end of the era of the old South­ern bulls — men like Al­len El­lender and Rus­sell Long from Louisi­ana; J. Wil­li­am Ful­bright and John Mc­Cle­l­lan from Arkan­sas; Richard Rus­sell and Her­man Tal­madge from Geor­gia; John Spark­man and James Al­len from Alabama; Strom Thur­mond and Fritz Hollings from South Car­o­lina; and Sam Ervin and Ever­ett Jordan from North Car­o­lina.

After six years in the House and nearly 36 in the Sen­ate, it was time for Co­chran to fold ‘em. It wasn’t so much be­cause of age — plenty of 76-year-olds have con­tin­ued to serve ef­fect­ively in Con­gress. The second rap on Co­chran — that “he’s been in Wash­ing­ton too long” — gets a little closer to the mark. It’s not so much that he has lit­er­ally been serving in Con­gress too long but that the Re­pub­lic­an Party, par­tic­u­larly in the South, has changed un­der his feet, and he seemed largely un­aware of and ill-equipped to deal with that change.

Co­chran and oth­er South­ern Re­pub­lic­ans of a cer­tain age and time were cer­tainly con­ser­vat­ive, but they didn’t carry the scars of vari­ous civil- and vot­ing-rights Sen­ate battles. They were con­ser­vat­ive without the harder edge and more acerbic rhet­or­ic that many con­ser­vat­ives and Re­pub­lic­ans today prefer, par­tic­u­larly those in the South, in small towns and rur­al areas as well as the ex­urbs. These politi­cians don’t just prefer red meat. They go for very rare or (bet­ter still) raw meat — something that’s pretty ali­en to a more gen­teel gen­er­a­tion of South­ern Re­pub­lic­ans.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this column mis­stated the num­ber of terms Sen. Co­chran has served in the Sen­ate.

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