Thad Cochran’s Allies Consider Scaling Back Their Support for the Embattled Senator

After a second-place finish, his advisers huddle to find a strategy that doesn’t damage Republicans’ chances of winning the seat and taking the Senate.

Committee Chairman U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) (L) and Vice Chairman Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) (R) discuss the proposed 2010 Defense Department budget at a hearing of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill on June 9, 2009 in Washington, DC. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the actions taken there in the next year and a half will show if progress is being made in Afghanistan.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
June 4, 2014, 10:08 a.m.

Es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans are in a tough spot in Mis­sis­sippi.

They want Thad Co­chran to win the com­ing run­off, and could spend tons of cash to at­tack tea-party chal­lenger Chris McDaniel. But they know the sit­ting sen­at­or is more likely to lose, and go­ing after his op­pon­ent will only dam­age the party’s abil­ity to beat the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate and take over the Sen­ate.

It’s an ex­cru­ci­at­ing de­cision for all of Co­chran’s sup­port­ers, from the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce. And even though they’re re­it­er­at­ing their sup­port, it already looks like they are ready to scale back, and that means less money and toned-down at­tacks.

“The Club for Growth and Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund will bank­rupt them­selves just to make their point. The NR­SC, the cham­ber don’t have that lux­ury — they’re look­ing at a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity,” one pro-Co­chran strategist said.

Ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an sources, lead­ers of pro-Co­chran out­side groups were meet­ing Wed­nes­day to dis­cuss strategy go­ing for­ward after McDaniel nar­rowly fin­ished in first place in the primary with 49.6 per­cent of the vote. Sources raised the pos­sib­il­ity that Co­chran’s sup­port­ers might shift their fo­cus to oth­er con­tests now.

Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, for one, an­nounced Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon that it wouldn’t get in­volved in the con­ten­tious run­off. “We have com­pleted our work on Sen­ate primar­ies this cycle … this is not our fight,” spokes­man Paul Lind­say said. Cross­roads didn’t air ads in the primary, but it donated $120,000 to the pro-Co­chran su­per PAC Mis­sis­sippi Con­ser­vat­ives, ac­cord­ing to Henry Bar­bour, the neph­ew of former Gov. Haley Bar­bour, who runs the group.

Co­chran faces dis­ad­vant­ages in the run­off that range from his leth­ar­gic cam­paign ef­fort to the like­li­hood of a smal­ler, more-con­ser­vat­ive turnout in three weeks and the pro­hib­i­tion on Demo­crat­ic cros­sov­er voters par­ti­cip­at­ing in the elec­tion.

He had no cam­paign op­er­a­tion when he an­nounced his reelec­tion bid and was de­pend­ent on out­side as­sist­ance for the race. The Mis­sis­sippi Con­ser­vat­ives su­per PAC spent $1.7 mil­lion on his be­half, while the NR­SC helped staff his op­er­a­tions. He also was boos­ted by ads from the cham­ber, which re­it­er­ated its sup­port for Co­chran in a tweet after the primary’s res­ults came in.

Over the next three weeks, the sen­at­or might re­fo­cus his mes­sage on the out-of-state in­terest groups back­ing McDaniel, Henry Bar­bour sug­ges­ted, rather than re­main en­gaged in per­son­al at­tacks against his chal­lenger. The primary race took an ugly turn in its fi­nal weeks after one of McDaniel’s sup­port­ers broke in­to a nurs­ing home to take pic­tures of Co­chran’s ail­ing wife, Rose, who suf­fers from de­men­tia.

In­deed, an­oth­er Co­chran ally in­volved with the sen­at­or’s cam­paign strategy said that his team won’t be bring­ing up that scan­dal dur­ing the run­off — a sign they real­ize it could badly dam­age McDaniel in the gen­er­al elec­tion if he wins the nom­in­a­tion.

“The point of ag­gress­ively go­ing after [the nurs­ing home scan­dal] was to get it na­tion­al at­ten­tion. Now there is na­tion­al at­ten­tion on that, we’ve achieved that ob­ject­ive. I think it would be a fools’ er­rand to con­tin­ue use that for no oth­er reas­on,” the Co­chran ally said.

That’s a far cry from the ag­gress­ive pos­ture com­ing from the out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups back­ing McDaniel. The an­ti­tax Club for Growth, which spent $2.5 mil­lion boost­ing his chal­lenge, called on Co­chran to with­draw from the race while threat­en­ing to con­tin­ue ham­mer­ing away at his re­cord if he doesn’t.

“He should do the hon­or­able thing and de­cline to con­test the run­off. Should he choose to per­sist, the Club for Growth PAC and con­ser­vat­ives throughout Mis­sis­sippi will vig­or­ously pur­sue this race to its con­clu­sion, and we will look for­ward to the elec­tion of Sen­at­or Chris McDaniel,” Club for Growth Pres­id­ent Chris Chocola said in a state­ment.

If Co­chran loses, he would be the first sen­at­or to lose to a primary chal­lenger this year, and would give tea-party act­iv­ists a much-needed vic­tory after earli­er set­backs against tar­geted in­cum­bents. But Demo­crats hope that with McDaniel as the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee, former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Trav­is Childers could make the race com­pet­it­ive. Childers, a Blue Dog Demo­crat, held a solidly Re­pub­lic­an House seat from 2008 to 2010, prov­ing his abil­ity to win over con­ser­vat­ive voters des­pite his Demo­crat­ic af­fil­i­ation.

“If you are con­cerned about win­ning this race, there is no ques­tion Thad Co­chran will win. There are ques­tions over wheth­er Chris McDaniel can,” ar­gued Co­chran strategist Stu­art Stevens.

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