Sen. Thad Cochran’s big campaign bus pulled up for its first stop of the day at the most impressive building in town — the local bank.
Once beyond the building’s grand white columns, the 76-year-old, six-term Republican politely shook hands with customers lined up for the tellers — as he did on the next stop, at another bank the town over, and at a lunchtime visit to the Rotary Club.
Some 160 miles farther south, near Biloxi, his challenger, Chris McDaniel, whipped up the crowd at a catfish dinner and a tea-party-sponsored event at a Gulf Coast community center. With an almost religious-revival call-and-response, McDaniel promised to end “crony capitalism” and derided the federal money that has flowed to this poor state and that is Cochran’s chief calling card for reelection.
“This self-entitled political aristocracy they have created — backroom deals and compromises, steak dinners and fancy affairs — whatever happened to the people?” said McDaniel, pounding the lectern to applause at the tea party event, where $2 raffle tickets offered the chance to win a shotgun and the sweet smell of potluck baked goods filled the room.
“The idea that certain people or certain companies deserve special or select treatment — that has to be forever eliminated. Corporate cronyism has to end. Bailouts have to end,” he declared in a trial lawyer’s practiced cadence. “We’re going to end it once and for all.”
As the candidates stumped across Mississippi in a final push for votes before Tuesday’s runoff election, the choice of venues reflected the race. The contest for Mississippi’s Republican Senate nomination pits genteel against charismatic, experience against a newcomer, but — more than anything — the GOP’s establishment base of business conservatives against a tea party insurgency echoing themes of economic populism.
The incumbent’s strongest reelection argument is that losing his seniority would deprive the state of its special clout in the corridors of power.
Asked whether, after all his years in Washington, he has perhaps brought too much pork home, Cochran let out a hearty one-word answer: “Nooo,” and laughed. Mississippi still has many people, including the unemployed, who could benefit from the federal government’s investments, he said.
That remains a selling point among the state’s business leaders and older residents who have been voting for “Thad” for years.
“It’s so hypocritical for Mississippians to not like the pork — and we need it,” said Matt Alford, an alderman in Forest, known as the state’s poultry capital, who stopped by the bank but said he has “mixed feelings” on the race and remains undecided.
“We’re all frustrated in what’s going on in Washington,” he said. But “I don’t know if we’d be wise in losing Sen. Cochran.”
Elsewhere in the state, however, where residents often joke about Mississippi’s dismal national rankings on many measures of economic and social success, the senator’s political power often meets a shrug.
If the federal government cut its spending here, “we might lose our place as No. 1 on the bottom of all statistics in the U.S. — oh, no, the horror,” said Lynn Rouse, a longtime Republican Party activist, feigning concern over losing the aid as he stopped at a McDaniel event at a catfish restaurant in Moss Point.
“I’ve supported Thad for 30 years, but I can’t do it anymore.”
As the season’s most competitive, nasty and costly primary showdown heads into its final stretch, widely divergent polling shows the outcome is uncertain. The first round earlier this month resulted in the narrowest of margins — McDaniel with a 1,400-vote lead over Cochran — and neither man reaching the 50% threshold for victory because of a smattering of votes that went to a third candidate.
The primary came after a series of scandalous headlines: A McDaniel supporter was arrested after entering the nursing home of the senator’s ailing wife to snap her photo. Other McDaniel backers were found locked in a county courthouse after-hours on election night.
Tea party volunteers are coming into the state, along with more than $10 million in outside money — $6 million on McDaniel’s side — as conservative groups hope to convert momentum from the recent defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia into energy to oust Cochran. It’s the sort of all-out war within the party that GOP leaders had tried to prevent this year.
Establishment figures say they fear a McDaniel win could create an opening in November for Democrat Travis Childers, much as hard-right nominees in Indiana and Missouri lost seemingly safe GOP seats to Democrats in 2012. Republicans need to net six additional seats to win control of the Senate this November.
Despite the high-profile contest, Cochran’s campaign still appears somewhat blindsided by the enthusiasm flowing to the challenger, who had been a little-known, two-term state senator from the legislature’s conservative wing. Support from the state’s roster of GOP leaders — led by former Gov. Haley Barbour and former Sen. Trent Lott — has kept the incumbent afloat, but even backers grumble that Cochran needs to make a better show of campaigning.
As he traveled the rural, green eastern part of the state, the slightly-stooped grandfather did not appear too worried about the urgency of his situation.
Shaking hands at a general store famous for selling 6,000 pounds of bacon a month, and introducing himself to those who seemed well aware of who he was, Cochran almost never asked for anyone’s vote — what some see as his humble approach to reelection.
“We’re doing a lot of listening; we’re not so much messaging as listening to what’s important to the folks we run into,” Cochran in a brief interview. “Jobs are important to our state, like in any other state. ... Education is always an important concern too.”
Some have publicly wondered whether the senator is fit for the job, a question he brushes back with a ready quip — “Tell them I am” — even as he sometimes rambles when discussing policy or draws blanks on the campaign trail when old allies say hello.
“I’ve served in Washington a long time,” the senator acknowledged, saying it was a “hard call” to seek another term. “People were just telling me, ‘I don’t know what we’d do without you.’ They’ll do fine without me, but I’m running.”
Sometimes, though, it appears the upstart McDaniel is running faster.
McDaniel’s message has become more disciplined since his early days on the trail, although he still stumbles into sound bites when pressed for details on his campaign promises — for example, how he plans to balance the budget (with economic growth and cuts elsewhere) or why saving a state naval shipyard is not pork (military spending should not be cut).
But in this race, policy expertise may not matter as much as ideology and energy. In his weathered campaign RV, McDaniel has crisscrossed the state in a tireless series of daily stops that began as a longshot bid for media attention but has become a signature strategy — and an easy contrast to the older Cochran.
“This is our time,” he told the tea party crowd, “and the entire country is watching Mississippi.”