MENDENHALL, Miss. — It was just after 9 a.m. Wednesday when Sen. Thad Cochran arrived at Simpson General Hospital, where several dozen people—longtime supporters as well as hospital staffers—had turned out to greet him.
Cochran came here as he began the final week of campaigning ahead of a tough Tuesday Republican primary against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has the backing of tea party activists and their allied groups.
The courtly U.S. senator was barely noticed when he entered the room, and after introductions he spoke for only a few minutes. He is not one to brag on himself. But it was clear that, if he is reelected to a seventh term, he intends to keep doing business as he always has in Washington, tea party critics notwithstanding.
“I hope to be able to continue to use my influence in Washington to be sure that we get our share of the federal dollars that are available to help us,” he told the gathering. His campaign bus distills that message into three words: “Thad for Mississippi.” And it’s been that way for more than 40 years.
Cochran was first elected to the House in 1972. Six years later, he moved to the Senate, the first Republican elected to that body from Mississippi since Reconstruction. Along with others, he symbolized a rising Republican Party in the South, one now firmly entrenched. But today, at age 76, he is threatened by a new uprising on the right, which rejects his style of politics.
Cochran refuses to rise to the tea party’s bait. On his way out of the hospital, he paused for a short interview. His answers were measured and low-key, a reflection of the Cochran well known to many in his state.
Why did he think he has become a target of the tea party? “Well, I feel like everybody who’s a citizen ought to take an active role in politics,” he said. “The system works best when everybody participates.”
To the charge that he isn’t a true conservative, he responded, “Everybody’s entitled to their views and their opinions, and I don’t get mad because somebody disagrees with me from time to time. But by and large, my representation of the state has been effective for the people of Mississippi.”
Cochran said he is running because others encouraged him to seek another term. “I thought it was time for me to retire,” he said. “I thought I’d served long enough.. . . But people were saying, what are we going to do without you?”
He declined to offer a judgment of the campaign run by McDaniel. Cochran has brushed aside his challenger’s calls for a face-to-face debate. “There’s no special reason why I should debate him,” he said. “I don’t know what the debate would prove that everybody doesn’t already know.”
Asked in what ways the two disagree, he said, “Well, I think the major thing is our experience. People have had an opportunity to observe me closely over a period of years and can make a decision about whether they want me to serve in another term in the U.S. Senate, and I’m prepared to accept their judgment. I think I’ll be reelected. I’m looking at polling information. It shows I have a strong position in the election.”
Cochran personifies almost everything the tea party dislikes: longevity in Washington; comity and compromise rather than confrontation; a record of winning earmarks that hardly qualifies him as a champion of small government or deep spending cuts. He is seen as the last, best chance for the tea party to knock off a Republican senator this year.
Until two weeks ago, McDaniel, 41, appeared to be gaining on Cochran. Then came the revelation that a local blogger had entered the nursing home where Cochran’s wife, who suffers from dementia, has lived for more than a decade. A photo of Cochran’s wife was posted on the Internet, drawing widespread condemnation. Since then, the blogger and three others, including two with some connection to McDaniel, have been arrested.
The investigation, which continues, has changed the complexion of the campaign. McDaniel supporters worry that it has taken attention away from the challenger’s critique of Cochran and turned the senator into a sympathetic figure.
But Cochran’s supporters wonder who will turn out to vote Tuesday and fear the unpredictability.
There is nothing that links McDaniel or his advisers directly to what happened, but they struggled initially to get their story straight — who knew what, when. Cochran’s campaign has aggressively pointed to inconsistencies in their statements. McDaniel was not available for an interview for this story.
Cochran, asked if he thinks the McDaniel campaign had a direct hand in the photos of his wife, said, “I don’t know. . . . That’s in the hands of the local officials.”
The uproar has not deterred McDaniel’s tea party supporters, as evidenced by the meeting Tuesday night near Jackson of the Central Mississippi Tea Party (CMTP). There, the criticisms of Cochran were strong and consistent.
The tea party activists see Cochran as a squishy conservative, or not a conservative at all, a politician insufficiently strong on issues ranging from abortion to Second Amendment rights to the Affordable Care Act. Some see him as a long-serving senator who has lost touch with what the Republican Party of 2014 needs.
“The gentleman has no fight left in him,” said Laura Van Overschelde.
Most of all, they see him as contributing to the debt and deficits that are at the core of their movement’s issues. All that money he’s brought back means nothing to them. “Thad Cochran has been in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years,” said Janis Lane, president of the CMTP. “The state of Mississippi was ranked 50th out of 50 when he went, and we’re still ranked 50th out of 50. . . . Where are the jobs from that money? Where has that money gone?”
“He’s basically the king of pork as far as Washington’s concerned,” said Don Hartness, who said all the money Cochran procured has made Mississippi a welfare state.
CMTP members had another worry when they met last week. One of group’s the former officers, Mark Mayfield, was among those arrested over the photo of Cochran’s wife. He has since resigned his position in the group.
One after another of Mayfield’s tea party friends expressed their loyalty to him. Addressing the group Tuesday night, Roy Nicholson, long prominent in the Mississippi Tea Party, said, “We don’t shoot our wounded. We put dressing and bandage on our wounded and we help them heal up and we stand strong with them.”
These tea party activists also vowed that night not to let the controversy over the photos distract them from their mission of defeating Cochran and nominating McDaniel. “It is not an important issue in this campaign,” Van Overschelde said. Added Lane: “We are staying focused.”
During his campaign stop at the hospital, Cochran had not mentioned the Affordable Care Act, a flash point for Republicans in this campaign year. In his brief interview after that event, he was asked about the law — how he evaluated the state of play over it and what he would do about it in another term.
“I think we need to monitor any federal programs that provide services and assistance to people who need help, and this is an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible and affordable,” he said. “We have probably one of the best health-care systems in the country, in the world, and we’ll need to continue to work to make sure it meets the expectations and needs of the American people. I’m glad to be involved in that effort.”
A short time later, a Cochran adviser called to say there was disagreement aboard Cochran’s bus about whether the question had been about Obamacare or the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said Cochran was among those on the bus who thought the question was about VA.
At his next stop, at his Hattiesburg campaign office, Cochran stopped to explain his views about Obamacare. He said he had opposed it from the start and then said the country needs a thoughtful response to calls for modernizing the health-care system.
“This is always a challenge, particularly for those who are out of money, out of work,” he said. “What do we do about that? We can’t just ignore them. But Obamacare is not the answer, in my view. . . . The president’s proposals are just not going to be politically acceptable.”
In the face of tea party criticisms and fearful of losing Cochran in Washington, the Republican establishment, in Mississippi and nationally, has rallied behind the incumbent. Cochran’s events are sprinkled with power brokers: local and county officials, state legislators, party leaders and business leaders.
At Simpson General Hospital, Brad White, a former state GOP chairman and someone who earlier oversaw economic development in the Simpson County, told a story that likely could be told in every county in the state, a story of Cochran and clout in Washington.
In this case, it was a phone call from Cochran to a Cabinet member that White said secured a loan that saved the hospital. “There were a lot of different people that played a part in everything we see today,” White said. “But I’m convinced that if that phone call would have not been made to a Cabinet member, we wouldn’t have been able to keep the hospital open.”
That kind of record has created loyalty to Cochran in Mississippi, and resentment among his supporters toward the tea party. Ruby Ainsworth, who was among those waiting to see Cochran in Simpson County, said she was upset by the tea party’s attacks. “He has always served us with dignity and grace,” she said.
Waiting for Cochran in Hattiesburg, Chris Bowen, a county supervisor in Forest County, described the senator as “a statesman” who has “mastered the art of mediating and bringing people together as well as any individual I’ve ever met.”
James Dukes, a prominent Hattiesburg attorney, has known Cochran since their days at the University of Mississippi. He called his friend “a Mississippi conservative” and dismissed the tea party’s tactics. “You can’t say we’re not going to compromise,” he said. “You may not compromise on certain basic principles, but government . . . is compromise.”
Josh Mars, speaking on behalf of young business leaders in the region, offered an endorsement of Cochran and said, “He has done more for Mississippi than any other representative, senator, governor in the past, and I think it is imperative that we keep this man where he’s at to keep Mississippi moving forward.”
Cochran has used experience and influence as the basis of past reelection campaigns. Tuesday’s primary will test whether those attributes can overcome deep dissatisfaction with Washington and the tea party’s distrust of politicians there.