Cochran Faces Toughest Test in 30 Years
By Kyle Trygstad Posted at 3:39 p.m. today
Cochran will seek another term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
In one of the last red-state bastions of appreciation for appropriations, Sen. Thad Cochran’s decision to seek re-election sets up a unique test for hard-line conservative groups that have targeted incumbents over the past few cycles.
The six-term Republican and veteran appropriator is beloved in Mississippi for his efforts to direct federal funding to a state in need — especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — so labeling him the “king of pork” won’t necessarily be a winning argument, even in a low-turnout Republican primary.
Cochran surprised even some Mississippi party insiders when he announced Friday that he would run for another term. Now his record of bringing home the bacon for the state’s various needs will be weighed against an onslaught of criticism from conservatives over his Senate tenure.He faces his most competitive challenge since 1984 from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, whose entrance to the race in October brought immediate endorsements from ideological outside groups that are interested in electing more senators like Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz was a central figure during the 16-day federal government shutdown.
“The question will be in today’s electorate, how many people are willing to ignore [Cochran’s work for the state] relative to the federal debt problem,” said John Keast, a former chief of staff to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. “Will they make Thad Cochran the poster child? The McDaniel folks are certainly going to try, but I’m confident Mississippians aren’t going to agree with McDaniel’s approach.”
Cochran allies concede he faces a tough fight. Although McDaniel is relatively unknown across the state, there are already indications that the race will split the party, even among the conservative wing.
“There are some in the conservative coalition that will be working hard for Chris McDaniel,” said Pat Bruce, head of the Madison County Conservative Coalition, who was complimentary of both candidates. “But then others will be working for Sen. Cochran because of what he’s done for us over the years.”
In the past two months, groups like the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project launched TV and radio ads in Mississippi to help raise McDaniel’s name recognition.
Given Cochran’s leadership in landing federal disaster relief dollars in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, leaders of the Madison Project told CQ Roll Call on Friday that they won’t necessarily be targeting his earmarks. Their argument is that there is someone else in the race willing to fight more to defund Obamacare and won’t support bailouts of any kind.
Still, Cochran supporters note that his work in the Senate — from agriculture to water to education to infrastructure — is evident every time voters drive down an interstate. Plus, despite lackluster fundraising so far this year, Cochran, 75, is well-positioned with $804,000 in cash on hand as of the end of September.
“I think that the strength of Cochran has been his reputation to the state as someone who responds to the state’s needs,” Mississippi-based GOP consultant Brian Perry said. “And I think he’s going to be able to raise the money necessary to run a strong campaign.”