OXFORD, Miss. — Construction on Phase II of the grand Thad Cochran Research Center here on the Ole Miss campus is expected to be completed later this year, around the time the senator hopes to be re-elected to a seventh term.
Cochran's help securing crucial federal funding for the pharmacy school’s natural products research facility is one of numerous examples of the Senate appropriator’s widely regarded ability to steer money toward his state, which has the lowest median household income in the country.
The incumbent spent the final week of an increasingly hostile race on a statewide bus tour touting his 36 years of experience in the Senate, despite the fact that his appropriations prowess — and accusations he doesn’t fight hard enough for conservative causes — is what led to the 76-year-old’s most competitive primary challenge ever, from tea-party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
“I feel comfortable knowing that I can get things done for the state to help better address our economic problems, also our national security interests,” Cochran said in an interview in Hernando, when asked about voters who may be looking for someone new. “As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I’m situated to help influence the level of funding for a lot of government programs in the national security area that directly benefit Mississippi,” including both military installations and defense contractors. Last week, days out from the June 3 primary, Cochran made several get-out-the-vote stops around northern Mississippi, including in DeSoto County, a booming Memphis suburb an hour north of Oxford with growing influence in the state’s GOP primaries. The new voters there lack a history of supporting Cochran every six years and the area is ripe for McDaniel to pick up support.
But on this day, tightly scripted by Cochran’s hefty traveling campaign team, the senator did four local TV interviews in three stops in the county, ahead of a few more events the following day while joined by Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Alan Nunnelee.
In every instance, Cochran was asked about the increased negativity in the race since several men, including at least a couple McDaniel supporters, were arrested for their alleged participation in the photographing of Cochran’s bedridden wife in her nursing home — a pivot point in the race and the talk across the state.
Each time, despite his own campaign’s ad tying McDaniel to the scandal, the senator said he just wants to talk about the issues and his experience in Washington. And that’s what he did in a brief stump speech at an engineering business in Hernando, and shortly after in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
The senator looked spry on another long day of campaigning, eschewing the elevator at the Olive Branch city hall to jog down the winding stairs. When asked by a TV reporter why he wouldn’t debate McDaniel, Cochran quipped he’s "not running to be a member of a debate team” and that debates rank "pretty low down the charts of public appeal.”
Despite the scandal that’s enveloped the race, several McDaniel supporters — all former longtime Cochran voters — said in interviews last week they are looking for more than just a change in their representation. They want to change Congress, and Cochran represents the past.
At a diner in Meridian, Edward Pierce, who is 64 and supported Cochran in each of his six prior elections, said Cochran "came into office in an era of big government growth ... and did his job really well." But, Pierce said, "times have changed and we can't afford big government anymore. And I don't see Sen. Cochran changing."
McDaniel, 41, is pitching to voters not only what he says is a renewed focus on conservative principles, but also an energetic voice for them. While Cochran appeared with the governor and members of the congressional delegation in the race’s final days, McDaniel invited in Sarah Palin and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., to join him. His message on the campaign trail couldn’t vary more from Cochran’s.
"I will stand side-by-side with Mike Lee and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to bring energy and bold leadership back to Washington,” McDaniel said in a May 29 interview in Union, Miss. "The era of compromise has to end. ... I’ll stand with those men. Those are my kind of senators.”
Whatever their messages on the stump, voters can't escape a steady stream of negative ads on TV and radio. More than $8 million in independent expenditures was spent in the primary, according to the Federal Election Commission, including on attack ads from allies of both candidates.
Cochran allies said they believed the senator was ahead going into the final week of the race, even as the two ran closely in recent publicly released polls. There is also the potential for a June 24 runoff, as a third candidate, Tom Carey, could keep both Cochran and McDaniel below a majority of the vote. The nominee will face former Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss., in November.
Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour who runs a pro-Cochran super PAC, sounded the alarm to Cochran supporters in a local TV interview, saying the senator "could very well lose” if they don’t turn out to vote.
Despite Cochran’s lack of a political operation when he announced his plans for re-election in December, the incumbent is benefiting from the loyalty and admiration of a phalanx of operatives connected to Haley Barbour. That includes the grass-roots operation Barbour put in place during his 2003 election that has also assisted most of the other top elected officials in the state.
According to Cochran allies, a strong Tuesday showing for the senator would include winning the Gulf Coast counties and doing well in Oxford and Tupelo in north Mississippi, as well as the Jackson-area Madison, Rankin and Hinds counties. He'll likely win if he does well in the Pine Belt in southeast Mississippi, and he needs to break even in DeSoto, in the northwestern corner of the state. The senator is expected to have a strong performance in the less populous Delta region. At a meet and greet in Hernando, Cochran’s address to the crowd lacked the red meat of his opponent’s message. Instead, he again played up his experience on the Appropriations subcommittees for defense and agriculture. That was enough for some boisterous applause, and he received a loud welcome from diners a few minutes later when he popped in the Windy City Grille around the corner before jumping back on his bus.
"He has always been a quiet leader,” said Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson, Cochran’s DeSoto County campaign chairman. "He’s not banging the podium, he’s not trying to grab the spotlight. He is quietly governing, which is what we sent him up there to do.”
Related stories: In Mississippi, Two Unlikely Comeback Bids to Congress The Chris McDaniel Bus Sputters and Rallies Cheat Sheet: House and Senate Primaries in June Stuart Rothenberg: Thad Cochran’s Mississippi