Mississippi has always been more culturally than economically conservative, and voters have long rewarded the ability of their lawmakers to send federal dollars back home. Cochran, a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has delivered.
In recent years, that has put him out of step with broader trends in the national Republican party. The Tea Party and groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, both of which have endorsed Cochran’s opponent, have worked to push Republicans away from pork-barrel spending and what they consider to be the big-government, business-as-usual arrangements. Cochran doesn’t fare well by this standard: His 2013 score from the Club for Growth was 56 percent; it was 60 percent from the American Conservative Union. In the Club for Growth’s rankings, only two Republican senators — Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins — had lower scores.
Tradition-bound Mississippi, however, isn’t at the forefront of national political trends. A letter to the editor of the Jackson-based Clarion-Ledger published last month summed up a pervasive sentiment among Republicans in the state. “The pragmatic choice simply boils down to this: if you want to keep the only powerful influence Mississippi has on national issues, vote for Thad Cochran,” a Jackson resident wrote. “He has brought immeasurable benefits to our State through years of developing Congressional muscle. If you want to make Mississippi increasingly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, vote for Chris McDaniel.”
Barbour and Stevens know firsthand what the 41-year-old McDaniel, who is giving Cochran his first serious race in three decades, is up against. Barbour’s political career began in 1982 when he sought to oust another long-serving lawmaker, the Democratic senator John Stennis. His motto? “A senator for the ’80s, not in his 80s.” Stennis then, like Cochran now, refused to debate his underdog opponent. It was a young Stevens who made a name for himself by taking video of Stennis’s annual press conference, splicing it together with Barbour’s responses, and making it look like a debate.
But Mississippi has a history of long-serving lawmakers, and Stennis trounced Barbour 64 to 36 percent. When representative Jamie Whitten retired in 1995, he was the longest-serving congressman in history and, as subcommittee chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, was often referred to as the “permanent secretary of agriculture.” (Michigan’s John Dingell has since surpassed him in time served.) In the 1990s, Mississippi voters twice rejected term limits for local legislators, opting instead for the rewards that come with a lawmaker’s seniority.
Though heavy on tradition, the state, once a Democratic stronghold, is not immune to change. “I think this race is very much still in jeopardy as to who can win and who can lose,” Henry Barbour, the head of a pro-Cochran super PAC and nephew of Haley Barbour, told a local television station on Thursday. “I think Senator Cochran has an advantage, but if people don’t turn out, Senator Cochran could very well lose.” Tuesday will reveal whether the Tea Party, which has upended the GOP in Washington, has gained enough traction to seize victory in Mississippi.
— Eliana Johnson is a political reporter for National Review Online.