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Can Thad Cochran Hang On?
Mississippi’s tight-knit political class defends the septuagenarian senator against a tea-party challenge.

Thad Cochran

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Eliana Johnson

Long Beach City, Miss. — Thad Cochran emerged from his campaign bus on Thursday under a gray sky and pouring rain. His entourage neatly symbolized how the lines are drawn in the primary battle from which he is hoping to emerge victorious on Tuesday.

Trailing behind the senator at the grip-and-grin session at Long Beach City Hall were figures of Mississippi’s Republican political establishment: the state’s lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves; and Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, a Mississippi native, and a media guru who has returned home to guide Cochran’s strategy in the closing days of his campaign. Mississippi’s political class is tightly knit: Stevens, who knocked on doors for Cochran’s first Senate campaign in 1978, calls his work on Cochran’s behalf a “labor of love.” He is one of many of the state’s political upper crust, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour chief among them, who have teamed up to try to pull Cochran over the finish line.

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In 15 minutes, Cochran, clad in a yellow rain jacket, made his rounds among the 20 or so people gathered to see him. The room was mostly empty and the energy was low, but those gathered looked on admiringly and paid their respects. The senator has largely avoided the media, even fleeing from CNN cameras earlier this week, and has refused to debate his challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel. Among his friends, though, he is at ease, and they are generous with their praise.

“After Hurricane Katrina, what a help; thank God he was there,” says Long Beach City mayor Billy Skellie, who has known Cochran since 1976. The hurricane destroyed city hall, which is situated across the street from the white sand beaches of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. It has since been rebuilt, but much of the coast still has a desolate feel. Skellie describes how Cochran helped secure federal funding for the rebuilding effort and coordinated the efforts of local officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “He’s just the go-to guy whenever you’re in a corner,” he says.

The race here began drawing national attention earlier this month when a conservative blogger was arrested on allegations that he broke into a nursing home last month to photograph Cochran’s bedridden wife. Now, three others, all McDaniel supporters, face criminal charges stemming from the incident.

Despite the veneer of civility and southern charm, Mississippi politics has always had a nasty side, and candidates have never hesitated to exploit the personal frailties of their opponents. This race is no different. Cochran is airing ads seeking to exploit the nursing-home incident or, as his team has termed it, “the McDaniel-campaign scandal.” (Nobody from the McDaniel campaign has been connected to the incident.) Over ominous music and images of a man in an orange jumpsuit, a narrator warns, “It just gets worse. Now, Chris McDaniel’s radio co-host, fundraiser, and hometown friend charged with felonies. The McDaniel-campaign scandal spreads. Had enough?”

Accusations and documents have been flying back and forth between the two campaigns. McDaniel’s team charged that Cochran has lost touch with Mississippi because he has listed as his primary residence the basement apartment in Washington, D.C., that he rents from his executive assistant; Cochran’s campaign returned the volley with evidence that he owns a home in the state. Now, conservative bloggers are raising questions about the nature of Cochran’s relationship with his executive assistant, Kay Webber, who has accompanied him on dozens of foreign trips and appears in pictures with him at society events in Washington and New York City. The not-so-subtle suggestion is that he is gallivanting about town with an employee while his wife languishes in a nursing home.

For Skellie, the Long Beach City mayor, none of the tawdry accusations comes as much of a surprise. “I’ve seen a whole lot worse,” he says. “It’s just a little bleep on the radar.”

Many had expected Cochran, who is 76, to retire rather than seek a seventh term. McDaniel didn’t wait for Cochran to announce his intentions before announcing, in October, that he would try to oust him. The decision rubbed many in Mississippi’s political class the wrong way, and the Barbour-led forces have worked tirelessly to boost Cochran since he announced in December that he would run again.

Cochran’s supporters say they’re mystified that McDaniel, citing Cochran’s support for earmarks and bank bailouts, has tried to make this an ideological battle. In Mississippi, media guru Stevens says, “Everybody’s a conservative.” Asked about the difference between the two candidates, Skellie, who has endorsed Cochran, ponders the question. “The change would be just a change,” he says. “It wouldn’t be because [Cochran] has failed.”



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