COLDWATER, Miss. — Amid the Confederate flags, the guns and the pigs — in pens and on plates — Chris McDaniel worked the Tate County Fair in search of votes in his quest to beat Sen. Thad Cochran in a runoff election in two weeks.
“I need you,” McDaniel said to Brandy Davis, before also greeting Bobby Goodwin, a heavyset man carrying a handgun, at a booth for the Citizens Militia of Mississippi. The members of the militia, whose motto is “Any fate but submission,” implored the Republican to take a hard-line stance on immigration and gun rights. McDaniel assured them that he would and that he is not “going to join any club” in Washington.
“This is a peek back to a better time,” he told a reporter a short while later as he walked through a sea of makeshift stands. “I’m a Jeffersonian and a Reaganite, and I like to remember how good things once were.”
If McDaniel is going to beat Cochran, it will be in large part because of supporters such as those in Coldwater on Saturday, where the latest cause celebre of the tea party movement held his first post-
primary event of note. Like many here, McDaniel is a true outsider — surrounded by volunteers with limited political experience, he engages little with the news media and less with leaders of his party.
But while those traits may be good for McDaniel’s appeal to the right, he has come to represent everything that establishment Republicans fear about the tea party: He is aggressive, unpredictable and, at times, insensitive — if not offensive — on matters of gender and race.
It’s not that the establishment is overly concerned about losing Cochran’s seat — this is Mississippi, after all, where a Democrat hasn’t been elected to the Senate in more than three decades. But party leaders are worried about feeding an impression that could hurt their chances elsewhere, in the same way Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri tarnished the GOP in 2012 when he referred to “legitimate rape.”
“One of the lessons of the Todd Akin disaster is that Democrats will not hesitate to tie the statements, behavior and controversies of one Republican candidate to all Republican candidates,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “This is the kind of stuff that the producers and hosts of MSNBC daytime programming salivate over.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), acutely aware of what McDaniel could mean to his chances of taking control of the Senate, will hold a fundraiser for Cochran on Tuesday in Washington.
In his former role as a talk-radio host before becoming a state senator, McDaniel, 41, referred to Hispanic women as “mamacitas,” proclaimed that he would never again pay taxes if African Americans were paid reparations for slavery, mused about whether “homosexual churches” exist and wondered aloud whether former attorney general Janet Reno “was a woman.”
Aside from his past statements, McDaniel is dealing with problems that have arisen during his campaign, in which he and his supporters at times have appeared disorganized and careless.
In one inquiry, the district attorney in Hinds County is looking into why McDaniel allies were found trapped in a courthouse hours after polls closed on the night of the primary. In another, four men have been arrested in connection with illicitly taking a photo of Cochran’s bedridden wife, Rose, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.
The prospect of a McDaniel primary win has given Democrats a glimmer of hope that they can claim a victory in an unexpected place this year, just as they did in 2012 in beating Akin, as well as Senate candidate Richard Mourdock in Indiana.
“If Republicans fumble and nominate McDaniel, we’ll be ready to catch the ball,” said Rickey Cole, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. In former congressman Travis Childers, who supports gun rights, voted against the Affordable Care Act and holds antiabortion views, Democrats think they have a nominee who could be competitive.
Instead of countering McDaniel’s hard-charging boasts of ideological purity, Cochran has played up his ability to secure federal money for Mississippi.
In an interview last week, standing outside a Raytheon facility he helped bring to Mississippi decades ago, Cochran said he still doesn’t quite grasp the Republican Party’s ongoing feud between business interests and the tea party movement. “Was it Will Rogers who said all he knows is what he reads in the paper?” he said. “Well, all I hear about the tea party is what I’ve read in the paper.”
McDaniel has attracted the support of high-powered conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and Citizens United, which have long clashed with Cochran’s affinity for federal spending projects. The Club for Growth has put more than $2 million behind McDaniel and plans to spend more during the runoff campaign. Other organizations, such as the Tea Party Express and ForAmerica, are working here on the ground. On Monday, former congressman Ron Paul (Tex.) endorsed McDaniel, joining former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.).
“McDaniel is the creation of these groups from outside our state who are trying to win a scalp,” said Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor who is advising a pro-Cochran PAC. “The Club for Growth knows that if they don’t beat Cochran, they won’t be in business — they’ll lose the support of their donors.”
Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, responded that Barbour was irritated about potentially losing his own business — in the form of lobbying fees. “For the Barbour family, having a Mississippi senator they’re close with, like Cochran, is their bread and butter,” he said. Brothers Austin and Henry Barbour, both political consultants and Haley Barbour’s nephews, also are backing Cochran.
Despite the millions from both sides pouring into Mississippi, the runoff election may ultimately be decided by how McDaniel, a political unknown until this spring, handles the scrutiny from prosecutors, as well as the national attention.
In the days following the primary election, the McDaniel campaign appeared as though it was not quite ready for a runoff. With thousands of potential supporters at the fair, the team barely attempted to collect e-mail addresses or phone numbers. A single staff member held a roll of navy-blue “McDaniel for Senate” stickers.
“I wish there were some television cameras here to show people how good he is with this kind of crowd,” Don Abernathy, McDaniel’s DeSoto County chairman, said as he followed the candidate around the fair. The only pictures being taken were by campaign manager Melanie Sojourner, who later tweeted a lone shot of McDaniel shaking the hand of a young boy in a wagon.
Asked whether they were prepared for the runoff, Sojourner said that the campaign didn’t think there would be one and that days before the primary, “we looked at each other and said we don’t want to wake up” and have thousands of dollars left unspent.
McDaniel, a lawyer who looks a bit like he’s in a fraternity — untucked button-down shirt, colorful silicone gel bracelets and a choker necklace — did not seem to relish the glad-handing. He wandered on his own several times to send texts or make phone calls, and when he did talk to people he mostly recited a series of conservative platitudes.
At one point, he spotted three rabbits sitting atop a wire cage and, without saying a word to the seller, started to pet one. He remained there for a minute, his head dipped and his hand slowly grazing the animal’s ears, until a man smoking a cigarette and wearing a hunting cap hoisted his son next to the rabbits. McDaniel, slightly startled, looked over and walked off.
Nevertheless, many here saw McDaniel as on their side. “Cochran’s not doing anything about the illegal aliens, and he’s taking money away from working people,” said Randy Perkins, one of the organizers for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Chris understands our heritage.”
As his day came to an end, his boots crusted in mud, McDaniel looked back toward the sprawling scene and described what he saw.
“We’re talking about blue-
collar, hardworking, common-sense Mississippi taxpayers that have been intuitively conservative their entire lives,” he said. “What you see out there is the heartbeat of Mississippi. We’re proud of them, and they’re proud to see change coming to Washington.”