Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has been running against a tea party challenger for months. But as he nears the end of the primary campaign, the longtime senator still doesn't know much about the movement that might topple him.
"Was it Will Rogers who said all he knows is what he reads in the paper?” Cochran asked The Washington Post's Robert Costa last week. (And if you haven't already, make sure to read Costa's excellent dispatch from Mississippi.) "Well, all I hear about the tea party is what I’ve read in the paper."
It's a variation of a line Cochran, who is in the midst of a runoff against tea party challenger Chris McDaniel, has trotted out before. In March he told a Fox News 25, a Mississippi TV station, that he "didn't know much" about the tea party, and added, "I read newspaper articles about them, and that’s about all I knew. It's kind of like Will Rogers. All he said he knew was what he read in the papers."
In February, Cochran told WLOX-TV, "The tea party, you know, is something I don't really know a lot about." He added, "It's a free country. We have open opportunities for people to participate in the election process."
If Cochran survives the June 24 runoff, it clearly won't be because he made nice with the tea party movement. That's notable, because other Republican senators have kept their jobs by warming up to the conservative forces that have tried to dislodge them.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) started voting more conservatively in advance of his 2012 primary, courted tea party activists and claimed to be a tea partier before the tea party even existed. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appealed to immigration hard-liners in 2010 by talking about the need to "complete the danged fence" in a famous 2010 TV ad. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) adhered to a staunchly conservative voting record last year in the lead up to his 2014 primary -- even voting against confirming his former Senate colleague John F. Kerry as secretary of state. Kerry was confirmed 94-3.
Cochran, by comparison, received low marks on the voting scorecards of conservative groups in the run-up to the primary. And his closing strategy appears to be centered on returning to his roots and reminding business and rural voters how he has helped them over the years.
If Cochran wins, it won't be because he extended an olive branch to the tea party. If he loses, there will no doubt be a debate about whether he should have.