Not since 1954 has a sitting United States Senator from Mississippi faced a serious primary challenge. In that year, Carroll Gartin, then an up-and-coming Democratic politician, decided to oppose Jim Eastland in their party’s primary. The last time a sitting United States Senator from Mississippi had his age and tenure in office questioned by a challenger was 1982, when Republican Haley Barbour mounted a general election challenge against 82-year-old John Stennis. In neither case did it turn out well for the challenger.
Now three months out from this year’s Republican primary election for U.S. Senator, virtually all of the beltway pundits contend state senator Chris McDaniel’s campaign against Thad Cochran represents a serious challenge in the form of an unprecedented intra-party and intra-political family contest.
As with any race involving an incumbent, this primary fight is a referendum on Thad Cochran. In other words, the June 3 primary election is Cochran’s race to lose. So long as he controls the campaign dialogue, stays on the offense with his own positive message, and educates voters about McDaniel’s record and positions on the issues, then Cochran will win. If Cochran fails to accomplish any of those campaign imperatives, then we could be looking at a long election night come the first Tuesday in June.
As we see it, the voters who are supporting McDaniel fall into two categories. The first are those who simply oppose Cochran’s record of directing federal spending to programs and projects in Mississippi. As McDaniel told those attending his campaign kick-off, “The national debt is the greatest moral crisis of this generation. So, let’s go forth from this place making it perfectly clear that the era of big spending is over. The age of appropriations must end.” Historically, Mississippi voters who adhere to that view inside the voting booth have been few. The second group includes younger voters who aren’t necessarily opposed to Cochran’s record of earmarks, but who believe it is time for a fresh face and new energy at the nation’s capital. It is that second group of primary voters whom Cochran has to persuade that seniority in Washington, DC is far more important than youthful energy and sparkling oratory.
Virtually every statewide Republican party official or elected official in Mississippi is backing Cochran’s re-election campaign. They are doing that out of respect for his service to the state and his party and the strong possibility that he could become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee if the Democrats lose control of that chamber in November (which your Republican co-author believes is more of a possibility than your Democratic co-author). And, of course, even while serving in the minority, Cochran has just demonstrated his political stroke by helping to write and then pass a farm bill reauthorization that will be plenty good for our state. His challenge might prove to be that beyond a relatively small circle of governmental and business leaders — and residents of South Mississippi with recollections of federal relief after Hurricane Katrina — there is a generation of Mississippi voters who know little of Cochran’s achievements. In the absence of knowing what he’s done and can continue to do, it is no surprise these voters might be willing to consider a fresh face.
The other major factor in this senate primary is the role of so-called Super PACs, out of state political action committees (thus, the abbreviation “PACs”), willing to spend millions of dollars in advertising that is not connected to either the McDaniel or Cochran campaigns. Several of these Super PACs made clear early on their intention to support McDaniel over Cochran. These same PACs backed challengers in GOP primaries throughout the country in 2012 and are doing so in Kentucky, Kansas, Texas, and other states this year. A million dollars can buy a lot of television in Mississippi. If these PACs choose to make that kind of commitment on behalf of McDaniel, then that factor would certainly make the race more competitive. Conversely, at least one newly created Super PAC is already spending significant amounts on an ad campaign opposing McDaniel.
If Cochran and his campaign are energized by McDaniel’s challenge and choose to set the tone of the contest, then we believe Cochran will be handily re-elected.
After June, the question becomes what effect this primary will have on the Mississippi Republican Party going forward. Will voters who backed McDaniel, many of whom are in fundamental disagreement with the public policy priorities of their leadership, continue to cause discord within the party? Your Democratic co-author is, of course, more fascinated by this prospect than your Republican co-author. And it is for that reason that the Democrats have recruited former first district Congressman Travis Childers to serve as their party’s nominee in the general election, in the hopes that he will be able to take advantage of any hard feelings lingering after the Republican primary. The national Democratic party has made financial commitments to the Childers campaign to make real that advantage.
Your Republican co-author believes recent history likely provides a guide, and that the primary result will signal a coming together rather than a driving apart of Mississippi Republicans. In 2010 and in 2012, for example, current incumbent Republican members of Congress faced primary challenges from the right, and in each case, the current incumbents easily won nomination and easily won their general elections. Your Democratic co-author thinks otherwise and believes there is a chance this primary upends history and generates enough discord within the state GOP to give the Democrats their first real shot at a Senate seat since 1988.