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Long Time Mississippi Senator In Fight To Save His Political Career

By Jeffrey Hess | Published 30 May 2014 03:20am | comments
Senator Cochran (left) tours the site of a recent tornado in Northeast Mississippi

The eyes of the national political media are on Mississippi's Republican senate primary. The race may be one of the last best shots for a tea party candidate to defeat an incumbent Republican senator.

Mississippians are just days from voting in the contentious primary battle between six-term incumbent Senator Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger state Senator Chris McDaniel. The race has gone from heated to surprisingly intense in the waning days of the campaign.

"It’s the worst. Chris McDaniel supporter charged with a felony for posting video of Senator Thad Cochran's wife in a nursing home? Had enough?" reads the female narrator from one of Thad Cochran most recent commercials keeping alive the story of Clayton Kelly.

Kelly is a political blogger and McDaniel supporter from Pearl, Mississippi  accused of sneaking into the nursing home of Cochran's ailing wife and taking pictures of her. He also apparently posted a short lived video on the internet that included the picture.

He was arrested in the middle of May and charged with exploiting a vulnerable adult. Three other people have also been arrested in connection with the plot.

The incident is perhaps the most high profile of what has turned into a divisive campaign to represent the GOP in the fall general election.

Speaking in a town in northeast Mississippi earlier this week, Senator Cochran said he is dismayed that his wife, who has been in a nursing home for more than a decade with progressive dementia, has been dragged into the campaign.

"I was surprised that someone would try to do something like that. But we are letting the local officials, the law enforcement of Madison County and the town of Madison carry out their responsibilities. I am not trying to tell people what to do or how to do it," Cochran said.

The McDaniel campaign has savaged Cochran's long record in Washington blaming him for every debt ceiling increase and growth in spending.  The campaign has also insinuated that Cochran has a mistress.

Cochran does not think those attacks will be successful on Tuesday.

"He's wrong. He has exaggerated almost every subject he has talked about. So,  I think it is good that we are getting down to the time when people can actually vote and make a decision. I think they are going to vote for me," Cochran said.

Mississippi's Republican political establishment has come out in support of Cochran including the entire Republican congressional delegation, the current governor, lietuenant governor and influential former Governor Haley Barbour.

All point to Cochran's respected history with the state and his ability to bring federal support to Mississippi.

His name is on buildings all over Mississippi.

Cochran's work as chair of the Senate appropriations committee crafting a multi-billion dollar recovery package in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is probably his most frequently noted accomplishment.

Former Majority Leader and Mississippi Senator Trent Lott cited this experience in a recent radio ad from a pro-Cochran super PAC.

"After Katrina devastated the coast, Thad knew what to do." Lott said.

The Senator is poised to return to that influential role if the Republicans retake the senate in the fall, as many political experts say they could likely do.

His track record, establishment support, and his high name recognition lead Senator Cochran to believe that he will be re-elected to a seventh-term on Tuesday.

"I am very pleased with the reception I have received everywhere I have been in Mississippi. People seem to be happy with the work I am doing. I am flattered by that. I have been encouraged to seek another term and continue representing Mississippi as I have in the past and that is my intention," Cochran said.

But it is that very same list of accomplishments that has ignited Tea Party resentment of his campaign and brought some of the most influential Tea Party leaders into the race in support of McDaniel.

Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin launched a radio ad in support of McDaniel this week.

"This is Governor Sarah Palin. Mississippi have a chance to send a message to Washington on June 3rd," Palin said in the recording.

Jenny Beth Martin, the head of the Tea Party Patriots which is one of the nation's largest Tea Party groups, also stopped in Mississippi.

"And we are here in Mississippi now because this election matters. We think it is of national importance to have one more Senator who will fight Obamacare with every fiber of his being," Martin said.

Tea Party opposition has focused on his role in directing federal spending toward the state while also attempting to label him an outsider who has lost touch with Mississippi.

There has been a stark contrast in the two campaigns.

McDaniel has run an aggressive grass roots campaign with dozens of well publicized bus stops.

In the past couple of weeks, Cochran has been more difficult to track down largely avoiding media and being more selective about announcing his public events.

Former Democratic State Representative and Mayor of Vicksburg George Flaggs is surprised by the harsh nature of the race.

He believes Mississippi's senate race is being influenced by the millions spent by interest groups outside the state.

"The race that I have witnessed on TV is not the race that I knew Chris McDaniel would run if he had to run his own campaign. These are races that they run when outside sources run. That is their brand. This is not the Chris McDaniel that I know," Flaggs said.

Longtime political observer Marty Wiseman considers the Cochran-McDaniel showdown one of the most dramatic intra-party skirmishes in decades.  He compares it  to racial strife among democrats in the 1970's.

Wiseman, who once ran the Stennis Institute of Government, also says the contest could leave scars that won't easily heal.

"You have got Tea Party Republicans accusing traditional Republicans of being flaming liberals. And they have worse things to say about them than they do Democrats. And I don't think that goes away just because you have a primary and everybody says 'OK, now let’s go beat the Democrats in the fall'," Wiseman said.

The winner of Tuesday's primary will likely face former Democrat Congressman  Travis Childers in November.

However, it is almost a certainty that the winner of the Republican primary will go on to  represent Mississippi in Washington.

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Senator Cochran (left) tours the site of a recent tornado in Northeast Mississippi


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