Why Helping Your State Isn’t a Surefire Strategy for Reelection

Sen. Thad Cochran has brought in plenty for Mississippi — and now it could cost him.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 09: 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
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Dec. 4, 2013, 4:31 p.m.

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.

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