Ellisville, Miss. — “Name one fight that Senator Thad Cochran has led against President Barack Obama,” Chris McDaniel demanded of the crowd Friday in an auditorium at Jones County Community College. From the audience came cries, “Zero! None!”
McDaniel, the state senator hoping to force Cochran into retirement on Tuesday, was flanked on stage by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. It was McDaniel’s largest campaign rally to date, and the crowd, nearly 800 strong, responded with the fervor that Palin continues to elicit in some pockets of the country.
Since the Tea Party rose to power in 2010, the genteel Cochran, who is 76, has not led the charge, alongside the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, against what they consider the out-of-control spending of the Obama administration. Instead, he has kept open the spigot of federal dollars that flow to Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the union.
McDaniel has the look and feel of a southern preacher, and he worked his audience in a call-and-response style more familiar in churches than at political rallies. Cochran’s failure to take the fight to Obama, McDaniel said, is “truly unfortunate.” The crowd responded: “Shameful! Shameful!”
“Mike Lee fights for Utah, Rand Paul fights for Kentucky, Ted Cruz fights for Texas,” McDaniel continued. “Even the governor of Alaska fights for us. It’s time for a son of Mississippi to stand and fight for us.” The crowd rose to its feet, electric.
Palin, who preceded McDaniel on stage, had picked up on the event’s religious feel, telling the crowd that McDaniel is “running with a servant’s heart.” Like Paul, Lee, and Cruz before him, McDaniel, she said, knows that “the status quo has got to go.”
McDaniel, 41, is the Tea Party’s best hope of picking off an establishment candidate this year. Even Cochran, who was first elected to Congress in 1972, seems to agree that his time has passed. He told the Washington Post on Wednesday that he thought it was time for him to retire but that others had pushed him to mount another bid. As the first Republican senator popularly elected in Mississippi, Cochran holds a place in history. Tuesday will tell whether he is an anachronism — whether there is still a place in Washington for a red-state senator who vows, as Cochran has, to work across the aisle and to use his seniority to send pork back home.
McDaniel thinks he knows the answer, and he is exploiting the generational gap. He told the crowd Friday that “an older America is passing away, and a new America is rising to take its place.” Pork-barrel spending, he said, is part of a “great delusion” peddled by politicians.
“A politician comes into a room like this, describes a problem, and tells you only government can solve your problem,” he said. “It is not the place of government to solve your problems. It is the place of strong, self-reliant individuals to solve your problems . . . not that government 1,000 miles away.”
Whether McDaniel’s time has come is another question. He hasn’t run the sort of flawless campaign usually required to oust an incumbent, and some Republican strategists worry that he is apt to stumble verbally the way that candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana did in 2012. One top Republican strategist, still agitated that Cochran was the first Republican to cross the aisle and declare his support for Chuck Hagel when he was nominated as secretary of defense, called the Mississippi primary the “Iran–Iraq War,” with unpalatable contenders on both sides.
McDaniel hurt himself badly when he and his staffers struggled to get their story straight about when exactly they learned that a McDaniel supporter had broken into the nursing home where Cochran’s dementia-afflicted wife resides and illegally videotaped her. Four people have been indicted in connection with the incident. In an interview at Ward’s fast-food restaurant, McDaniel says he models himself after tea-party stars Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz, but they have been conspicuously absent from this race: All three have vowed not to endorse candidates challenging incumbent lawmakers.
McDaniel has built his campaign largely on fiscal issues. He has lambasted Cochran repeatedly for his votes to increase the debt limit and in support of other federal projects. “It’s immoral to keep spending in the reckless fashion he’s been spending,” McDaniel tells me. Mississippi, though, is one of the top recipients of federal funding per tax dollar paid, receiving nearly $2.50 per dollar sent to Washington, and McDaniel is hard-pressed to identify which dollars that flow to Mississippi he is prepared to slash. The specific cuts he endorses publicly are rather small: “A good example of something that is not a legitimate function of government would be free cell phones, and there are plenty of cuts we can make out there in regards to some of those items that are not legitimate functions,” he says.
The latest polling shows the race neck-and-neck going into Tuesday’s primary. A Harper poll out Friday has Cochran up 45 to 40 percent — just outside the survey’s four-point margin of error. But Cochran is below 50 percent, dangerous territory for an incumbent senator, and his numbers have slipped from the Harper poll conducted in April. Another poll, from the Democratic polling firm Chism Strategies, has McDaniel up 46 to 44 percent, within the three-point margin of error.
If McDaniel wins on Tuesday, he’ll face former representative Travis Childers, who was recruited by the Democrats to run in the event that he manages to pick off Cochran. Childers hasn’t raised much money to date — just over $50,000 — and he’ll rely on an influx of cash from Democrats around the country who hope to prevent a Republican takeover of the Senate. But the pro-life, pro-gun Childers is expected to run a campaign, ideologically speaking, very similar to Cochran’s: He’s presenting himself not as a liberal but as an unabashed proponent of Mississippi’s rather conservative status quo.
Heading into the election, the energy and the urgency are on McDaniel’s side. On Tuesday, Mississippians will decide whether that’s enough to overcome his flaws as well as the loyalties Cochran has accumulated serving his state over four decades in Washington.
— Eliana Johnson is a political reporter for National Review Online.