"If the people of Mississippi are dumb enough to get rid of" the senior senator on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee for a freshman senator with no power, "this is going to be dead, dead, dead," Gary Rhoads, Flowood's Republican mayor, fumed at a recent meeting of the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District.
Rhoads' rant came in response to a question from fellow Levee Board member Socrates Garrett, a prominent Jackson contractor, about which candidate in the upcoming Republican primary runoff would be better for "One Lake," the metro area's long-running flood-control/development effort, which will need federal funds to get off the ground.
Over the years, Mississippi's senior Sen. Thad Cochran, has been a master of bringing home federal bacon, which his political rivals have seized on as a political flaw. Among those foes is state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who not only derides Cochran's pork-barrel tendencies, but promises to bring as little federal money back to Mississippi as he can get away with if he wins the contest.
The bluest of the state's Democratic strongholds, the capital city and surrounding communities have reaped millions of dollars from Republican Cochran and the erstwhile congressional earmark program.
In the last year before Congress did away with earmarks, projects in and around the city Jackson received approximately $38 million from Cochran for the city of Jackson, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson State University, the Jackson-Evers International Airport, the Medgar Evers historic site, and other local projects and organizations; in all, in fiscal year 2010, Cochran sponsored 243 earmarks that added up to $497.6 million.
That puts Jackson in a precarious position—do Democratic-leaning voters in Jackson support Cochran in his bid to retain his seat or focus on sending the Democratic nominee, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, to Congress' upper chamber? Conversely, how should a Republican stalwart like Cochran go about courting Democratic votes to help him overcome McDaniel's insurgence? Not to mention, should Democrats trust that Childers could beat McDaniel and continue staying home in the primary runoff?
The Perils of Wooing Dems
Byron D'Andra Orey, a Jackson State University political science professor, said wooing Democrats represents a "conundrum" for Cochran. Partisan politics in Mississippi are inextricably tied to race, so white Republicans would view an explicit appeal to Democrats as an appeal to African Americans.
"The reason they want him out is because he has the kind of record that blacks can stomach," said Orey, noting that Cochran is the namesake for the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center in west Jackson.
"Mississippi is so polarized around race, any time you make an explicit appeal to blacks, you're going to lose white voters."
Votes from African Americans and Democrats are there for taking, though. Overall, just under 400,000 people participated in Mississippi's primary. Of that total, 313,484 people voted in the Republican primary, about half the number of Mississippians who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. By contrast, the 84,339 Democrats who voted in that party's primary are only 15 percent of people who voted for President Barack Obama in the same election.
And Democrats who did not turn out to vote Democratic in the recent primary could cross over and vote Republican in the primary if they choose. (If they voted in the Democratic primary, they are barred from this runoff, however.)
Certainly, McDaniel defied odds laid out early on in the campaign when Cochran, a well-financed 40-year veteran of Congress, was mopping up the floors of Capitol Hill with his young opponent. A deluge of money from Super PACs helped McDaniel surge, and a series of high-profile, albeit bizarre, controversies in the final weeks helped generate local and national interest.
McDaniel, who has been a source of excitement for Mississippi's Tea Party, puts emphasis on "defending traditional values," including anti-abortion legislation.
In 2012, McDaniel introduced a bill "to prohibit the abortion of a human being based upon a determination of the gender or race of the human being"—playing into the anti-abortion meme that the procedure is being used to target women of color. He was, however, absent for a vote this year to prohibit abortion counseling as part of pregnancy-prevention programs at state colleges. That amendment failed by one vote, leading Cochran loyalists to blame McDaniel for what they called a victory for pro-choicers.
The candidate's "pro-life" stance will likely influence his decision on presidential nominations to the federal bench. McDaniel also believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, and has been endorsed by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. McDaniel opposes amnesty for undocumented immigrants and introduced a bill this year that would have allowed for release of offenders to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in certain situations.
McDaniel's conservative stances have drawn big money from national conservative groups despite the fact that Cochran has raised more overall. McDaniel's campaign raised $1.3 million, one-third of which came from small donations of $200 or less.
But the super PAC for the anti-government, billionaire-backed Club for Growth has spent an additional $2.5 million on the race, aside from direct donations to McDaniel.
Cochran raised $3.6 million, mostly from corporate donors such as Telapex Inc., the holding company that owns Ridgeland-based C Spire, which gave $24,800; Baker Donelson, one of the nation's largest law firms, based in Jackson, which gave $19,350; Southern Company, the Atlanta-based utility company and parent of Mississippi Power, which is building a controversial coal-fired power plant in Kemper County; Deloitte LLP, a professional services firm and defense contractor Raytheon.
The top five contributors to McDaniel's campaign committee are Club for Growth, which promotes fiscally conservative economic policies, a PAC called Senate Conservatives Fund, property-management company HA Langer & Assoc., conservative nonprofit Citizens United and College Loan Corp.). Meanwhile, Super PACs have dropped close to $5 million, with McDaniel receiving the lion's share, about $3.8 million.
Big-name far-right conservatives such as Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and, most recently, Ron Paul, have endorsed McDaniel. Maxir Corp. also donated $7,800 to McDaniel's campaign and $51,000 to Club for Growth Action. The organization's director Richard Offerdahl also owns the biotech company Sierra Sciences who claims to "cure the disease of aging." Their work focuses, in part, on stem-cell research with the hopes of stopping aging.
Every Republican statewide officeholder has lined up behind Cochran, including Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and state Auditor Stacey Pickering as well as former Gov. Haley Barbour.
That McDaniel was able to force a runoff despite Cochran's fundraising prowess—and in light of the nursing-home controversy involving Cochran's wife—seemed to indicate that he would take the momentum and that Cochran's base would be deflated after the June 3 election.
Poll: Older Whites Fired Up
Enthusiasm among an older and overwhelmingly white electorate has not waned in the Republican primary runoff for U.S. Senate, a Democratic polling firm finds.
Chism Strategies, which is based in Washington, D.C., and has an office in Mississippi, conducted a statewide survey on Thursday, June 5—two nights after U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel finished in a virtual draw—of 832 households that participated in the past four Republican federal primaries.
"At this point in the race, supporters of both are energized and optimistic," the report states.
Of those polled, 97 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote in the runoff election. Pollsters determined that equal percentages of Cochran and McDaniel voters will turn out for the June 24 primary runoff and that equal percentages believe their candidate will win the election.
The poll provides some insight into the people who will pick the state's GOP nominee. Calling only landlines, Chism Strategies got a sample that was 96 percent white and 90 percent over the age of 55.
Even Barbour, who was sometimes prone to making racially insensitive remarks while serving in the governor's mansion, is talking openly about that the Cochran campaign hopes to "expand the electorate" going into the runoff.
Barbour, a congressional lobbyist, hinted that Mississippians would turn away from McDaniel if they understood what his anti-spending views would mean for the state's economy. "People are going to know the differences between Cochran and McDaniel on policy, and one of the first ones is going to be federal spending on education. And I predict it will increase the number of people who vote in the runoff," Barbour told Politico.
Jared Boyd contributed reporting.