Thad's Last Stand: Can Cochran Hold Off the Tea Party?

Image: Thad Cochran
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., reads over the ballot in a privacy booth prior to voting absentee in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, May 31, 2014. Cochran, 76, in Congress since 1973, is in the fight of his political life, a brutal, too-personal Republican primary that has drawn his bedridden wife into the melee and resulted in criminal charges against some of his opponent's supporters.(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)Rogelio V. Solis / AP

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JACKSON -- In the final day of campaigning in one of the most closely-watched Senate races in the country, Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran wooed Tea Party conservatives Monday by emphasizing his support for the repeal of Obamacare. But the six-term incumbent also didn’t shy away from his role as the “establishment” candidate in this race, with several key elected officials joining him on the stump.

“He’s a conservative,” backer Rep. Gregg Harper said of Cochran as several hundred supporters rallied for their long-time senator. “He’s just not mad about it.”

Tea Party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel, who has said he would model himself after Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz if he is elected to the Senate, is arguing that Cochran is insufficiently conservative. So the longtime senator, speaking softly as he always does, repeatedly made direct appeals to people looking for an anti-Obama conservative on his last full day on the campaign trail.

“I’m for repealing it, I co-sponsored legislation to do just that,” he said of the health care law at a press conference outside an agriculture museum here, barely audible in a crowd of more than two dozen journalists.

The most notable part of Cochran’s campaigning, as he made stops in the Jackson area on Monday, was who was with him: Gregg, Governor Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum stumped with McDaniel over the weekend, but the powerful players in this state have all allied with the incumbent. Cochran was also joined on the road by another figure of the GOP’s more moderate wing: Stuart Stevens, who was Mitt Romney’s top strategist during the 2012 campaign.

McDaniel, campaigning in the northern, more conservative parts of the state, stuck to the core message of his campaign: Cochran isn’t a strong enough opponent of Obama.

“Barack Obama is the worst president in this country’s history,” he said in an appearance in Southhaven, according to WREG, a Memphis television station. McDaniel added that Cochran has “been silent against the Obama administration. He hasn’t lead a single charge against the president.”

Polls show a very tight race here, and top Republicans in the state are not sure who is going to win, in part because of two factors that have emerged to shape the contest in the closing days. The most notable is a controversy involving a McDaniel supporter who allegedly photographed Cochran’s wife in her nursing home, where she has lived for the last decade because she suffers from dementia. McDaniel has denied any role in the incident, but Cochran’s campaign has attacked him for it.

Does that controversy and the resulting mudslinging leave voters angry with both candidates, and opting to stand home? A low turnout, according to Republicans here, would benefit McDaniel, whose supporters are believed to be more intense. But the incident has also heighted attention in the race, GOP officials say, potentially causing a higher turnout.

“A big turnout is good for us, a small turnout is good for them,” said Harper in an interview.

Also, because Mississippi does not register voters by party, a few Democrats could cross over and participate in the more exciting Republican race. McDaniel has accused Cochran of targeting Democrats, citing an advertisement emphasizing Cochran’s bi-partisanship that appeared in a black newspaper here.

Cochran denies courting Democrats, but when pressed on the question by reporters yesterday, seemed perfectly happy to get support from people outside of his party.

“I’m not going to people when to vote or how to vote,” he said. He added, “I respect their decisions.”

Tea Party groups have invested heavily in this race, turning it into a campaign that is viewed nationally as the latest battle in the contest between establishment and anti-establishment forces in the GOP. McDaniel in particular has highlighted his ties to figures like Cruz and Palin, who are disliked by many Washington Republicans.

But Republicans here note that McDaniel has support from some veteran Republicans. They say the race is more properly understood as a debate over whether Cochran is a savvy legislator skilled at bringing federal dollars back to the state or simply a member of Congress who just stayed too long.

“If people vote for Thad Cochran, it’s largely because they feel like he’s done a good job, we need him there, that’s why the governor is supporting him,” said Joe Noself, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party. “And if they vote for Chris, it’s not going to be because he’s less establishment. They’re going to vote for him because they believe it’s time for a change.”