By Hastings Wyman –
US Sen. Thad Cochran (R) had become an institution in Mississippi, representing a gentlemanly conservatism that pleased many and, for many years, rankled few. But as Cochran sought his seventh term, that establishment aura no longer fit the mood and temperament of many of the Magnolia State’s Tea Partiers and other hard right conservatives.
Enter state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who waged a fiery primary challenge to Cochran that even included photographs of Cochran’s dementia suffering wife in the nursing home where she has long resided (though this was not authorized by McDaniel). McDaniel’s ideologically based challenge included an appearance on his behalf by Sarah Palin, still a politically potent figure among the GOP’s righter wing.
McDaniel led in the June 3 primary, but received less than 50%, and then lost the June 24 runoff after Cochran’s campaign sought and obtained the support of a number of Democratic voters – mostly African Americans. McDaniel cried foul and has been in court since challenging the results of the runoff.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have a stronger-than-usual nominee in former US Rep. Travis Childers. Childers, 56, was a chancery clerk in Northeast Mississippi until his election to Congress from Mississippi’s 1st District (Tupelo, etc.) in 2008. He served one full term before he was defeated by Alan Nunnelee (R) in 2010. Childers won this year’s Democratic Primary for the US Senate with 74% against three opponents. His hope in entering the race was that McDaniel would win the GOP nomination, giving Childers a shot at center-right Republicans who deem McDaniel too far to the right. But that did not happen, and Democrat Childers finds himself trying to win the votes of the state’s most conservative voters, those who supported McDaniel.
Most of Childers’ policy positions have been standard Democratic fare – equal pay for women, hiking the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, opposing privatization of Social Security. But he did do a run around Cochran’s right when he signed an anti-amnesty opposing a path to legal residency for illegal aliens, a pledge Cochran has not signed. Noting that Mississippi’s jobless rate was one of the nation’s highest, Childers said in a statement, “There are too many corporations in our state and across the nation who are hiring illegal immigrants and guest workers instead of providing unemployed Mississippians with opportunities to perform hard work at a decent wage.”
The Real Clear Politics average of three surveys taken from June through October 1 gives Cochran 44% to Childers’ 32%. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight senate forecast noted a 4.7% shift to Childers in recent weeks, but still gives Cochran a 10.6% lead.
At GOP headquarters, the word is optimism. “We had a tough primary,” says Bobby Morgan, the communications director, “but we’ve had tough primaries in the past, and we have been able to form a coalition of conservative voters to carry us through the General Election.” He adds, “The message that party chairman [Joe] Nosef has been saying across the state is that if you think Travis Childers is the most conservative candidate, you are not a real conservative.”
As far as what disgruntled McDaniel supporters might do, “There’s no evidence that people are going to stay home other than a few wild people on social media,” says Morgan.
Steve Shaffer, professor of political science at Mississippi State, noting that “it was such a bitter primary,” says this election is “uncharted waters for the state.”
Indeed, hard evidence is scant of McDaniel voters moving toward Childers or purposely not voting. In a voluntary poll on Magnoliareport.com, in answer to whether McDaniel should concede the Republican runoff to Cochran, as of October 16, 1,818 (67%) said no, he should not concede, an indication that some McDaniel’s supporters are not happy campers, to 846 (31%) who said yes, he should concede. But who knows who participated and why?
Cochran is by far the better financed candidate. As of October 15, Cochran had $551,000 on hand for the final three weeks of the campaign; he raised $150,000 in October alone. Childers’ current numbers were not available; at midyear, he had raised $178,000, with $35,000 on hand.
Childers has challenged Cochran to debate, an invitation frontrunner Cochran has ignored, prompting a Childers TV spot featuring three hound dogs looking for the senior senator. In his latest 30-second TV spot, Childers never mentions that he’s a Democrat. “Before leaving Congress I worked with both parties,” he says. Of interest: In all of his earlier pictures, Childers sports a mustache; in later photos, his upper lip is smooth.
McDaniel, meanwhile, continues to pursue his lawsuit challenging the runoff results. His campaign website proclaims in big type, “Democrats steal the Mississippi runoff” and the story beneath it says, “This election was a sham.” His most recent political activity was to endorse Rob Maness, a Tea Party-backed Republican in neighboring Louisiana. And some of McDaniel’s Mississippi supporters are putting their emphasis elsewhere. Recently a group raised money for the political action committee of Rick Santorum, who carried the Magnolia State’s presidential primary in 2012 and is a potential contender in 2016. But when asked by a reporter about the state’s Senate race, Santorum, who backed McDaniel in the primary, said he supports the Republican nominee, i.e., Cochran.
All of the available evidence suggests that a Cochran victory is highly likely. Still, there’s a lot of anger and a lot of “undecided” voters this year in the Magnolia State. Keep an eye on it.