Politics
10:23 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

In Mississippi, A Tea Party Challenger Takes On A GOP Institution

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 6:57 pm

The Tea Party Express bus tour made a recent swing through Mississippi, stopping on the lush grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson.

It's a strategic stop to rally support for a state senator who is giving longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran the re-election battle of his career. The Senate primary here is the latest episode in the national GOP power struggle between establishment forces and Tea Party upstarts.

"The conservative movement is starting its life again," challenger Chris McDaniel says to the small crowd gathered under sprawling oaks and magnolias. "And it's happening right here in Mississippi. Right? A revival."

At 42, McDaniel styles himself as a fighter in the model of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ready to take on the powers in Washington, D.C. But first, he has to unseat a powerful and popular incumbent.

"I like Thad Cochran," he says. "When he went there in 1973 [to the House of Representatives], Richard Nixon was your president. It was a different era then," says McDaniel. "Perhaps at the time it was fashionable to spend money recklessly. But those days have passed."

To show just what an institution McDaniel is up against, take a walk around the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg, where the student union building is called the Thad Cochran Center. You can find something named for Cochran in just about every county in Mississippi.

"His name on buildings reflects his clout and influence in the Senate," according to Joseph Parker, a retired political science professor at Southern Miss.

He says when Cochran was elected to the Senate in 1978, the traditional role for Southern senators was to bring home the bacon, steering federal funding to benefit constituents. Now, Parker says, that's what makes Cochran a prime target for the Tea Party.

"If you believe that government ought to be shrunk enormously, all of this largesse that Cochran has brought in — it's exhibit A of what you don't like about the government," says Parker.

The distinction between the two candidates is stark. McDaniel says it's time for Mississippi and other states to get off the federal dole. He has said he's not sure he would have supported spending for Hurricane Katrina relief.

Cochran, meantime, is unapologetic for his largesse.

"I think earmarks have gotten a bad name," Cochran says. He touts his seniority on both the agriculture and appropriations committees, and his ability to direct how tax dollars are spent.

"For those who are opposed to that, [they] are for the federal agencies making the decision," Cochran says. "This is supposed to be government of and by and for the people — not for the bureaucrats."

Nicknamed Gentleman Thad for his mild manner, Cochran, 76, comes off as a grandfatherly figure on the campaign trail, telling long-winded stories about his days as a student at Ole Miss, and recapping his political journey from the House to the Senate in 1978.

"I know I don't look that old, but I'm beginning to be a senior member of the U.S. Senate," he tells students at Desoto County High School.

Cochran is the third-longest serving senator, and is now seeking his seventh term.

At a campaign stop at City Hall in Horn Lake, Miss., Cochran is greeted like an old friend.

"Senator, how's my buddy?" says Sluggo Davis, shaking Cochran's hand and slapping him on the back.

"Good to see you, Mr. Clerk," Cochran says, working the crowd.

Davis is the chancery clerk for Desoto County, a bustling area in north Mississippi, near Memphis.

"Thad's going to be the winner," Davis says. "He's done a tremendous amount of work for Desoto County, state of Mississippi and Sluggo Davis."

Davis points to the new Interstate 269 outside of Memphis as evidence of Cochran's influence.

"Mississippi's a poor state," he says. "We need all the help we can get."

Cochran is one in a line of senators who have brought billions in federal spending to Mississippi, and the GOP establishment wants voters to know that matters. Cochran has the backing of political titans, including former governor and Republican rainmaker Haley Barbour, and many of the state's top elected officials.

"I'm supporting Thad Cochran," says Gov. Phil Bryant. "Sen. Cochran has done more for this state than anyone I know in public service."

As the establishment stands behind Cochran, conservative groups are trying to help McDaniel. Club for Growth is running television ads to counter Cochran's clout.

"In Mississippi, Thad Cochran's name is on lots of buildings," an announcer says. "In Washington, Cochran's name is on bailouts, tax hikes and debt."

McDaniel says the very soul of the Republican Party is at stake.

"We literally are fighting not only to restore our Republic and to save the Constitution," he says, "but likewise to restore the conscience of our party."

Elva Eubanks from Star, Miss., is backing McDaniel. She likes his promise to shake up the status quo.

"And not buckle and vote with the good ol' boys in Washington," says Eubanks.

She has typically supported Cochran. But at the Tea Party rally, she waves a sign that says "Retire Thad Cochran."

"Thad has done a lot for the state. I'm not down on Thad," she says. "My grandmother was a Cochran. But the pork has got to stop."

Republican primary voters in Mississippi will decide June 3 whether they prefer the clout of a senior senator or the conviction of a Tea Party firebrand.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republican Senator Thad Cochran is facing the reelection battle of his career. He's been in Congress for four decades. He is a political fixture in Mississippi.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's a solidly Republican state, but Cochran now faces a challenge from the right. A state senator backed by the Tea Party is running against him in a June primary.

INSKEEP: It's a closely watched fight between what's known as the Tea Party and what's known as the Republican Party establishment.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

(APPLAUSE)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Tea Party Express bus tour made a recent swing through Mississippi.

DIANA NAGY: Let's get this country back on track.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELLIOTT: On the lush grounds of the state capitol in Jackson, speakers and singers rally a small crowd gathered under sprawling oaks and magnolias.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NAGY: (Singing) ...big government out, get our country back.

ELLIOTT: The star of this Tea Party show is Chris McDaniel, a second-term state senator taking on U.S. Senator Thad Cochran in the Republican primary.

(APPLAUSE)

STATE SENATOR CHRIS MCDANIEL: Yeah, there's energy again. The conservative movement is starting its life again. And it's happening right here in Mississippi. Right? A revival.

ELLIOTT: At 42, McDaniel styles himself as a fighter in the model of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, ready to take on the powers in Washington, D.C. But first, he has to unseat a powerful and popular incumbent.

MCDANIEL: I like Thad Cochran, and when he went there in 1973, Richard Nixon was your president. It was a different era then. It was a different time then. Perhaps at the time, it was fashionable to spend money recklessly. But those days have past.

ELLIOTT: To show just what an institution Chris McDaniel is up against, I've come to the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg. I'm standing in front of the student union building. It's called the Thad Cochran Center. You can find something named for Senator Cochran in just about every county in Mississippi.

JOSEPH PARKER: His name on buildings reflects his clout and influence in the Senate over his 36-year period.

ELLIOTT: Joseph Parker is a retired political science professor at Southern Miss. He says when Cochran started in the Senate in 1978, the traditional role for Southern senators was to bring home the bacon, steering federal funding to benefit your constituents. Now, Parker says, that's what makes Cochran a prime target for the Tea Party.

PARKER: If you believe that government ought to be shrunk enormously, all of this largess that Cochran has brought in, it's exhibit A of what it is you don't like about the government.

ELLIOTT: The distinction between the two candidates is stark. Chris McDaniel says it's time for Mississippi to get off the federal dole, so much so that he's not sure he would have supported spending for Hurricane Katrina relief. On the campaign trail, Thad Cochran is unapologetic for his largess.

SENATOR THAD COCHRAN: Well, I think earmarks have gotten a bad name.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: Cochran touts his seniority on both the Agriculture and Appropriations committees, and his ability to direct how tax dollars are spent.

COCHRAN: And for those who are opposed to that are for the federal agencies making the decision. This is supposed to be government of and by and for the people, not for the bureaucrats.

ELLIOTT: Nicknamed Gentleman Thad for his mild manner, Cochran, now 76, comes off as a grandfatherly figure on the campaign trail, telling long-winded, at times repetitive stories about his days as a student at Ole Miss, and recapping his political journey from the U.S. House to the Senate in 1978.

COCHRAN: I know I don't look that old, but I'm beginning to be a senior member of the U.S. Senate.

ELLIOTT: He's the third-longest-serving senator, and is now seeking his seventh term.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Senator.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's an honor for you to come to Horn Lake. We welcome you.

COCHRAN: I appreciate your invitation.

ELLIOTT: At this campaign stop at City Hall in Horn Lake, Mississippi, Cochran is greeted like an old friend.

SLUGGO DAVIS: Senator, how is my buddy?

COCHRAN: Good to see you, Mr. Clerk.

ELLIOTT: Offering a hand and a slap on the back is Sluggo Davis, the chancery clerk here in Desoto County, a bustling area in north Mississippi, near Memphis.

DAVIS: Thad's going to be the winner.

ELLIOTT: Why do you think that?

DAVIS: What's he done wrong? Why shouldn't I think that? He's done a tremendous amount of work for Desoto County, state of Mississippi and Sluggo Davis.

ELLIOTT: Davis points to the new I-269 highway here as evidence of Cochran's influence.

DAVIS: Mississippi's a poor state. We need all the help we can get.

ELLIOTT: Cochran is one in a line of senators who have brought billions in federal spending to Mississippi, and the GOP establishment here wants voters to know that matters. Governor Phil Bryant.

PHIL BRYANT: Well, I would just say I'm supporting Thad Cochran. Senator Cochran has done more for this state than anyone I know in public service.

ELLIOTT: As the establishment stands behind Cochran, conservative groups are trying to help his opponent, Chris McDaniel. Club for Growth is running these television ads to counter Cochran's clout.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: In Mississippi, Thad Cochran's name is on lots of buildings. In Washington, Cochran's name is on bailouts, tax hikes and debt - lots of debt.

ELLIOTT: McDaniel says the very soul of the Republican Party is at stake.

MCDANIEL: We literally are fighting not only to restore our Republic and to save the Constitution, but likewise, to restore the conscience of our party.

ELLIOTT: Elva Eubanks from Star, Mississippi is backing McDaniel. She likes his promise to shake up the status quo.

ELVA EUBANKS: And not buckle and vote with the good old boys in Washington.

ELLIOTT: Eubanks has typically supported Cochran. But at the Tea Party rally, she waves a sign that says "Retire Thad Cochran."

EUBANKS: Thad has done a lot for the state. I'm not down on Thad. My grandmother was a Cochran. But the pork has got to stop.

ELLIOTT: Republican primary voters in Mississippi will decide June 3rd whether they prefer the clout of a senior senator or the conviction of Tea Party firebrand. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.