Longtime Mississippi senator fights to save his political career

BY Jeffrey Hess, Mississippi Public Broadcasting  May 30, 2014 at 4:41 PM EDT

Sen. Thad Cochran, left, tours the site recently devastated by a recent tornado in Northeast Mississippi. Photo courtesy of MPB

Sen. Thad Cochran, left, tours a site recently devastated by a recent tornado in Northeast Mississippi. Photo courtesy of MPB

Editor’s Note: Sen. Thad Cochran from Mississippi is the second longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate and has become a target by tea party activists around the country. They had hoped he would be an easy incumbent to topple in Tuesday’s primary, but a scandal involving a supporter of tea party candidate Chris McDaniel may be what saves the 76-year-old statesman’s career.


JACKSON, Miss. — Sen. Thad Cochran puts the scandal front and center in his recent television commercial.

“It’s the worst. Chris McDaniel supporter charged with a felony for posting video of Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife in a nursing home? Had enough?” reads the female narrator.

The ad refers to a political blogger and tea party activist who is accused of sneaking into the nursing home of Cochran’s ailing wife and taking pictures of her and posting them on the Internet. The blogger and three others have been arrested in connection with the plot.

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


For its part, the McDaniel campaign is trying to put the focus back on the problems with Cochran’s long service in Washington, blaming him for every debt ceiling increase and growth in spending.

Cochran does not think those attacks will be successful when people vote in Tuesday’s primary election.

“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 establishment has come out in support of Cochran, including the entire Republican congressional delegation, the current governor and the influential former Gov. Haley Barbour.

All point to Cochran’s respected history with the state and ability to bring federal support to 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 have led 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 and brought in outside money into the race. Tea party favorite Sarah Palin launched a radio ad in support of McDaniel this week.

“This is Gov. Sarah Palin. Mississippi has a chance to send a message to Washington on June 3rd,” Palin said in the recording.

Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the nation’s largest Tea Party groups, also stopped in Mississippi. “We are here in Mississippi 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.

Longtime political observer Marty Wiseman considers Cochran-McDaniel showdown one of the most dramatic intra-party skirmishes in decades, comparing 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.

This post originally appeared on MPB’s website on May 30.