Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., listens as former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor introduces him at the Pass Christian Harbor on Thursday. Photo by: AP Photo/Sun Herald, Jon Fitzhugh
June 21, 2014 10:06:53 PM
JACKSON -- Enmeshed in the toughest campaign of his career, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran appears a bit frayed as he tries to fend off a challenger who was born the same year Mississippi voters first sent him to Congress.
The 76-year-old incumbent is thinner than he was 20 years ago and sometimes leans in to hear questions during interviews, but supporters argue it would be a mistake to retire him because he's an effective negotiator who still embraces a quiet, mannerly approach to politics.
Age is a factor in the June 24 Republican primary runoff between Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed candidate who had a 1,418-vote lead over the veteran senator in a three-person race June 3 -- just short of a majority to win. McDaniel turns 42 later this month and has built momentum with hundreds of appearances at catfish restaurants, county fairs and gun shows. He says Mississippi needs someone younger and more conservative in Washington.
"He's been up there as long as I've been alive, and this is a considerable length of time," McDaniel said in launching his challenge to Cochran last fall, a line he recycles in other campaign stops.
Cochran was elected to the House in 1972, the Senate in 1978 and is a former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. The last time he had to exert himself for re-election was in 1984. This year, he did not run aggressively before June 3. Supporters say his failure to flatten his upstart challenger shows the misplaced comfort of an officeholder who has spent more effort on policymaking than politicking.
"It appeared that the Cochran machine was a little rusty," Mike Retzer, a longtime Cochran donor who chaired the state GOP from the late 1970s to early 1980s. "I think they had a big wake-up call.... Now, the question is, can they oil up his machine and turn out his vote?"
In the age of instant social media and tea party relevance, Cochran is an anachronism -- a man who said, after the tough initial primary, that he intends to write thank-you notes to current and former Senate colleagues who had called with words of encouragement. Earlier this year, he said he didn't know much about the tea party, even though the loosely organized movement in recent years has ousted several of Cochran's veteran Senate colleagues and helped push Republicans into the House majority. Last week, he told The Associated Press he had not evaluated the ouster of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by tea party-backed challenger Dave Brat.
He also offered a more detailed assessment of the tea party movement.
"I think it represents a group of people who are dissatisfied with the way things have been going," Cochran said in the Jackson suburb of Richland. "I'm concerned about the direction of the country, too. It's just that we have different ideas about how to deal with it. And I think my record is one of service and helping craft legislation that modernizes federal government agencies like the Department of Agriculture and others, and also helps protect our national security interests. These are very important obligations of Congress, and they cost money."
Two recent incidents caused heartburn for Cochran's campaign staff.
Fox News posted a brief online video clip June 13 of an interview one of its TV reporters did with Cochran a day earlier. In it, the reporter asked about what happened in Virginia, and Cochran said he didn't know. After the video was posted, Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell said Cochran knew about Cantor's loss, but: "He's not a political pundit. He doesn't know whether Cantor had a ground game in Virginia."
Early last week, Cochran told a group in Hattiesburg that he had grown up visiting grandparents in rural south Mississippi. "It was an adventure to be out there in the country, seeing what goes on -- picking up pecans, from that to all kinds of indecent things with animals," Cochran said, to some laughter from the audience. The remark sparked crude speculation on social media. Russell said he asked Cochran about it, and the senator talked about hunting, cooking and eating rabbits in the woods when he was a boy.
Older age traditionally has not been a barrier to re-election in Mississippi. When young Republican Haley Barbour tried to unseat Democratic Sen. John Stennis in 1982, Barbour not-so-subtly brought a birthday cake to a political gathering in a campaign year when the popular senator was turning 81. Stennis bulldozed Barbour on Election Day.
Barbour went on to a lucrative Washington political and lobbying career and two terms as governor from 2004 to 2012. Now he's one of Cochran's most high-profile supporters.
The 1982 contest was Stennis' last race.
Cochran rarely, if ever, acknowledges McDaniel unless he's asked by reporters. And only then will he display the kind of fire that his supporters insist is there beneath the quiet, almost detached demeanor. "My opponent is an extremist," he said at one stop last week, arguing "it would be dangerous" for Mississippi to elect someone so critical of federal spending.
Standing in the Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula at the early morning shift change, Cochran was surrounded by aides and volunteers waving signs that read "SAVE OUR JOBS" and handing out flyers boasting about Cochran's role in securing federal money for defense contracts.
The senator himself stood in the middle of the throng shaking hands with the workers who noticed him, saying, "Good morning, I'm Thad Cochran, have a nice day" or "Hello, I'm Thad Cochran. I hope you have a good day."
Some of the workers stopped and thanked him for wielding his influence so they can keep building vessels. Many more walk by uninterested or unaware. Only a handful of workers confronted Cochran, one demanding to know why he won't debate McDaniel. Showing a rare fire, Cochran told the man, "I'm not campaigning to be a member of the debate society. I'm running for the United States Senate."
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