PEARL, Miss. — Sen. Thad Cochran is a portrait of the genteel Southern politician, known for three-piece suits, a shock of white hair and shoveling billions of government dollars back to his impoverished home state to repair levees, construct research facilities at Ole Miss and bolster catfish farms.
That spending prowess once reaped rewards for the Mississippi senator, with buildings bearing his name, easy reelection campaigns and so much public affection that he’s known here simply as “Thad.”
Now it’s a skill that may drive him from office.
The six-term senator is defending his seat against a tea party upstart whose supporters are using Cochran’s seniority as an example of all that is wrong with Washington. They have crowned Cochran the “No.1 pooh-bah of pork.”
The race in Mississippi — along with Republican primaries in Kansas, Kentucky and South Carolina — is the latest chapter in the GOP-establishment-versus-tea-party standoff that has defined the last two congressional election cycles.
But after ignoring or underestimating tea party candidates in the past, incumbent GOP senators are fighting back. Early on, they’ve locked up support from conservative and business interests and tapped formidable war chests. They are confronting their challengers head-on and vigorously defending their records, in sometimes surprising ways.
When Cochran took the stage recently at a Chamber of Commerce brisket dinner, he not only defended his pork-barrel spending, he spoke about the goodness of government — something few Republicans have dared to do since the small-government tea party movement swept through their party.
“Government — from the local to the federal levels — has played an important role in creating the environment that sustains economic growth and job creation,” he told the pro-business audience in this wealthy suburb outside Jackson.
His campaign didn’t stop there. His supporters launched a TV ad mocking challenger Chris McDaniel, a telegenic state legislator half Cochran’s age. The spot highlighted an interview with McDaniel in which he said he was not sure he would have voted in favor of a multibillion-dollar federal disaster aid package that Cochran helped bring to Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina.
“Seriously?” the ad said. “We just can’t count on him.” McDaniel quickly backtracked and said he would have supported the aid, even as he questioned how it was spent.
As the midterm election approaches, other incumbent Republican senators are adopting similarly aggressive tactics for dealing with tea party challengers, mindful of colleagues who underestimated the threat in past elections and lost their seats, such as Richard G. Lugar in Indiana two years ago and Robert F. Bennett in Utah in 2010.
In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to “crush” his tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, and has banked a stunning $18 million for the effort.
Hoping to co-opt Bevin’s tea party message, McConnell is veering rightward. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he strode on stage carrying a rifle overhead, Charlton Heston-style; and his operation has relied on a popular tea party hero, fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for public endorsement and private counsel.
In Texas last month, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn, easily defeated a tea party challenge.
And in South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham is driving around the state in his Crown Victoria — which he boasts recently logged its 244,000th mile — trying to shore up local support and insulate himself from attacks by the Palmetto State’s libertarian wing. Several primary challengers are vying to emerge as his main opponent.
“The message is very clear: You have to make sure you have your grass-roots ducks in order,” said Leroy Towns, a veteran campaign manager for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who faces a tea party challenge in Kansas. “You learn that you don’t take any election for granted, especially these days. People are restless.”
The outcomes of these races probably won’t affect the battle for control of the Senate because most of these conservative states are expected to elect another Republican no matter who wins the primary. But the results will help determine whether the Senate continues the rightward shift exemplified by the election of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz two years ago or is populated by those like Cochran, who have been known to reach across the aisle to cut a deal.
Cochran is probably the most endangered of the sitting Republican senators this year. An early avalanche of outside money has spun the race into a marquee contest for the tea party — second in prominence only to the battle in Kentucky — ensuring the June primary will be a mudslinging affair.
Already, the conservative Club for Growth has hit Cochran in an ad as out of touch for saying the tea party is something he doesn’t “really know a lot about.”
At a recent tea party meeting in Picayune, a flag-stop town in the southwest corner of the state, McDaniel, a trial attorney, hammered away at Cochran’s role as one of the GOP’s top appropriators, saying that after nearly 40 years with Cochran in the Senate, the state had little to show for it but a nation further in debt.
“All of that spending, one thing has remained constant, hasn’t it? That’s the fact that we’re still dead last in everything,” McDaniel told the small group, which included one person in a faded yellow “Don’t tread on me” T-shirt. “Maybe there was a time in the 1970s for that type of reckless spending. That time’s past.”
But McDaniel’s initial hesitation in supporting Hurricane Katrina aid has hurt him along the Gulf Coast, where large swaths of prime shoreline real estate still sit empty like a wind-swept ghost town. In a state so bereft of modern conveniences that even a Starbucks is hard to come by, Mississippians who pride their state as among the most conservative in the nation seem unprepared to give up the flow of federal aid.
“I can’t imagine what shape we would be in if we didn’t have Sen. Cochran,” said Eddie Favre, former mayor of coastal Bay St. Louis, which was hit hard by Katrina. McDaniel seems like a “great guy,” he said, but “I don’t think we can take the chance.”
And as is happening in Kentucky, Kansas and South Carolina, the tightknit Mississippi GOP establishment has drawn a cloak of endorsements around its senator, including current state elected officials as well as former Gov. Haley Barbour, who remains a political powerhouse in party politics. The group that ran the anti-McDaniel ad is headed by Barbour’s nephew.
From his party headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef said GOP competition is healthy as long as the primary doesn’t spin out of control or allow the expected Democratic candidate, Travis W. Childers, a former congressman, to sweep in.
“We are determined,” he said, “not to be one of those states that the Republican part of the nation looks at on election night and says, ‘But for a screw-up down in Mississippi, we would have taken the Senate.’”