GOP establishment backs Thad Cochran
By: Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan
June 11, 2014 11:15 AM EDT
A thousand miles from Mississippi, Republican lobbyists, long-time senators and fundraisers are raising a glass — and raising money — to save their man Thad Cochran from the tea party.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bragged at an event Tuesday night that it was the “biggest fundraiser ever in this building” — a feat considering the building is the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Washington is coming out in force to help Cochran stare down an insurgent tea partier Chris McDaniel, who stunned the establishment by nearly pulling off an upset victory last week over the sitting Republican senator. The two will meet again on the ballot in a run-off at the end of the month.
The primary battle has become a flashpoint in the GOP civil war, emboldening many of Cochran’s old friends to fight for him — even at the risk of inflaming movement conservatives in Mississippi who believe Washington is the problem. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat Tuesday by tea party challenger Dave Brat only increased the pressure on the GOP establishment to win in the Magnolia State.
“We are going to win it,” McConnell promised the crowd Tuesday night, according to a source at the event.
The fundraiser raised $820,000 for Cochran’s political war chest, according to a senior Republican official.
Cochran’s inside-the-Beltway backers are well on their way to raising their goal of $1 million from the business community to help fuel his campaign. They are also hitting the phones in nightly banking sessions, huddling to strategize and holding conference calls with the Cochran operatives to get updates on what is happening on the ground.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is also soliciting contributions from lawmakers, K Street and donors for a super PAC run by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour that is backing Cochran, according to GOP sources. Blunt is limited to asking potential donors for $5,000 per person, but they can give unlimited funds. Barbour has also been placing calls to political allies trying to raise more funds.
Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), NRSC executive director Rob Collins and other chiefs of staff have been making phone calls to lobbyists and business groups asking them to re-up with Cochran as well, according to GOP sources familiar with the dialing for dollars campaign.
Wicker said the fundraising effort is going “very very well.”
In effect — the GOP establishment is doing what they are supposed to do — going all in for one of their own.
The push comes after the high profile American Crossroads super PAC announced it would not put money towards Cochran’s campaign to fend off McDaniel in the June 24 run-off. Outside groups spent more than $8 million in the primary, an extraordinary amount in Mississippi.
Defending incumbents in primaries this cycle has been a focus for Republican leadership and the NRSC since the start of 2013.
McConnell and his political operation have said they are “all in” for Cochran and the Kentucky Republican has put the weight of his political operation into the effort. In an unusual move, the NRSC sent an email signed by McConnell urging K Street to get in the game. McConnell is also getting daily briefings on the state of the race and who is making campaign contributions to Cochran showing the stakes the minority leader has assigned the race.
“We have been in this situation before and all of us know well from experience, this is no time to sit on the sidelines,” the email signed by McConnell said, noting that that he and his team will be “asking for daily updates for those of you who have stepped up to help.”
Several lobbyists said that McConnell’s personal involvement in the race convinced them to cut checks for Cochran.
“He’s as involved as a leader can be asking other colleagues to help out and sending out an email to K Street,” said one lobbyist, noting that giving to Cochran is a way to earn a chit with the McConnell operation.
Several Republican senators said they would attend the Cochran fundraiser and also were stepping up to give the maximum amount to Cochran for his run-off. Sens. John Thune (S.D.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), John Cornyn (Texas), John Barasso (Wyo.) and James Risch (Idaho) were all at the event, according to a source. Cochran remained back home in Mississippi.
“I’ve raised money for him. I had a fundraiser for him in Huntsville, maxed out in the PAC and am maxing out again tonight,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “Cochran’s a good friend and a good man and I want him to win.”
Additionally, the NRSC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been in the field doing polls, according to multiple sources familiar with the effort.
The Chamber’s Blair Latoff Holmes said that Cochran is “a champion for free enterprise and an important voice for job creation in his state and the country, and the Chamber is standing with him.” The Chamber has not committed to doing any ads, or allocating other resources yet.
Cochran is in an uphill fight.
GOP leadership aides say that senators are “very realistic” about Cochran’s chances in the run-off. He has had multiple gaffes, hasn’t shown the energy he has had in previous races and increasing his performance in a run-off is really difficult.
He was first elected to Congress in 1972 and became a senator in 1978. Cochran made his reputation as a king of pork barrel spending directing hundreds of millions of dollars back to Mississippi from his perch on the once-powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Tea Party groups say it isn’t surprising that the Washington machine is coming out for Cochran.
“Everyone coming to Cochran’s defense are lobbyists that very much depend on their special relationship with him and his ability to get special provisions through the appropriations process, so it doesn’t surprise me that they are basically fighting for their own business model and all the interests that they represent,” said Freedom Works’ Matt Kibbe.
Kibbe said the group’s ground team is still in place and they want to “re-execute the plan that got us to victory” in the primary. Kibbe will be in Mississippi Saturday as part distribution of new materials and get out the vote rallies in five cities.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee also had sent a number of staffers to the Magnolia State for the primary and they will remain for the run-off, according to GOP insiders.
Sen. Susan Collins also said she was “very optimistic” about Cochran’s chances.
“I’m giving him another contribution, the maximum I can give him from my leadership PAC and I’ll be going to the event for him tonight,” the Maine Republican said.