U.S. Senator Thad Cochran was forced into a Mississippi runoff campaign after being attacked by a Republican primary challenger as a free-spending, Washington insider.
As the June 24 vote approaches, the six-term incumbent is embracing the rebuke and running on it. In television ads and on the campaign trail, Cochran is touting the federally funded projects he secured for his state and jobs they created. His previous campaign ads attacked his opponent, state Senator Chris McDaniel, or President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Mississippi is home to military installations and a rocket-propulsion complex financed with Cochran’s help as a onetime Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. Almost 46 percent of the state’s budget revenue in 2012 came from the federal government, the largest share nationally, the Washington-based Tax Foundation found.
The Tea Party Dilemma
In 2010, the amount of money funneled by Cochran to his home state was estimated at $490 million by Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based nonpartisan group. His name appears on at least one building or complex at or near each of the state’s three major universities.
“The loss of Cochran would absolutely translate to lost jobs,” said supporter Joe Sanderson, chairman and chief executive officer for Laurel, Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms (SAFM:US), which employs about 6,000 people in the state. “Mississippi has a huge investment in him and his seniority.”
As he makes his last stand for a Washington career spanning more than 40 years, the 76-year-old Cochran is betting Mississippi voters will decide that keeping their jobs is worth saving his.
If successful, the strategy could be adopted by other incumbents, including Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas, who in August primaries are facing -- like Cochran -- challengers aligned with the Tea Party movement that seeks to curb the federal government’s reach.
Cochran’s emphasis on his Senate record also sets up his re-election fight as a direct counter to the Tea Party’s central tenet that spending on the type of projects he showcases needs to be reduced.
“The Tea Party argument is better in the abstract than the details,” said John Bruce, chairman of the University of Mississippi’s political science department. “It’s OK to reduce federal spending in Idaho, but people might say, ’I really need my shipyard because that’s where my dad works.’”
Cochran’s runoff contest with McDaniel, 41, was triggered after neither man won the 50 percent needed to secure the nomination in a June 3 primary that included a third candidate. That race ended essentially in a tie, with McDaniel leading Cochran by about 1,400 votes out of more than 313,000 cast.
“I don’t see any evidence that suggests Senator Cochran is concerned with our country’s $17.5 trillion dollar debt,” said McDaniel supporter Michael Watson, state senator. “Our debt will lead to more market uncertainty, higher interest rates and a declining standard of living.”
Cochran is ignoring those accusations in a blitzkrieg of television ads. In one that highlights some of the state’s biggest employers, including defense contractors Raytheon Co. (RTN:US) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. (HII:US), the senator is praised as a “powerful voice” for Mississippi employment.
The spot was the only ad Cochran’s campaign ran on broadcast television from June 11-16,, data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG shows. It aired 274 times during that period, or about 45 times a day.
Cochran’s supporters include the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, which also has taken to the airwaves on his behalf. It is running an ad featuring Mississippi native and former National Football League star quarterback Brett Favre, who says: “Thad Cochran always delivers.”
In another pro-Cochran ad, the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors stresses his efforts to secure funding after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of Mississippi and to keep flood insurance affordable.
“The strongest lever he has against the McDaniel campaign is to say that this guy wants to take away things that this state depends on,” said Bruce, of the University of Mississippi.
With limited, high-quality public polling available, Bruce said it’s difficult to forecast the outcome of what’s likely to be a low-turnout contest to finally determine the Republican Senate nominee.
“Runoffs are even weirder than primaries,” he said. “History typically rewards the challenger because the challenger has the excitement. The thrill isn’t there for the incumbent.”
Cochran is showcasing Mississippi jobs tied to federal dollars on the campaign trail, too.
His hand-shaking stops have included one with workers along the Gulf Coast during a pre-dawn shift change at Ingalls Shipbuilding Inc., the state’s largest private employer and one heavily reliant on federal contracts. At a truck dealership, he drew a contrast between his own position and opposition from national Tea Party groups to highway funding bills.
The runoff will most likely determine the Senate race’s outcome in November, given Mississippi’s Republican tilt. The party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, carried it by 11 percentage points over Obama.
Democrat Travis Childers, a former U.S. House member, will face the winner, and his party sees its best -- and likely only -- chance of stealing the Mississippi seat from Republicans in a match-up with McDaniel.
Defeating Cochran would be one of the Tea Party’s biggest victories this primary season, ranking only behind the upset by David Brat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s June 10 Republican primary.
Cochran could reclaim the appropriations chairmanship, which would heighten his spending clout, should Republicans in November gain the six Senate seats they need to take control of the chamber.
Sanderson, Cochran’s campaign finance chairman, said he expects a “close” runoff election.
“Chris McDaniel ran a very good campaign,” he said. “They hung Washington around Senator Cochran’s neck.”
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