State Sen. Chris McDaniel was once hailed as the tea party’s golden boy – a candidate with an opportunity to end the 2014 primary cycle on a high note. But a bizarre photograph, the memory of a hurricane, and a mild-mannered incumbent have left the anti-establishment wing of the GOP at the end of its rope in Mississippi.
On paper, the Senate primary contest in the Magnolia State appeared to be a prime pickup opportunity for aggressive anti-establishment groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund – a chance for the groups to have a victory in a primary season that’s been fraught with defeats. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., after all, has served in Congress for 42 years, longer than McDaniel has been alive, and the soft-spoken senator hadn't had a competitive race since 1984.
"He is thoughtful, kind and mild-mannered," says former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who lost his seat in a contentious Republican primary in 2012. "Sometimes in this kind of primary we will see people are looking for an aggressive personality."
Cochran entered the race with a target on his back, having made no secret during his tenure in the Senate that he'd used his position on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee to deliver pork for Mississippi, a sin for some conservative voters back home.
Yet tactical differences between McDaniel and Cochran haven't taken center stage in the final week of the campaign. The candidates have not even held a debate. This late in the game, a messy public relations messaging response and a late-campaign bombshell have distracted from McDaniel’s message. McDaniel's been forced to answer questions about his ties to a conservative blogger who was arrested after having allegedly broken into a nursing home and taken photos of Cochran’s bedridden wife, who has severe dementia. Since the initial story broke, a local lawyer/volunteer for McDaniel’s campaign and two others have been arrested.
Now, instead of talking about Cochran's voting record, McDaniel’s been forced to repeatedly deny any involvement in the incident.
“A lot of voters see something needs to be done. Maybe Thad is too old for the job, but now they also worry that McDaniel is not ready for prime time,” says John Taylor, chairman of the Madison County Republican Party in Mississippi.
Cochran's campaign has pounced on the momentum and released an ad Tuesday tying McDaniel to the controversy and painting him as playing "dirty politics."
McDaniel's allies say the attacks have not been fair.
"After 42 years of representing Mississippi, his closing argument is the nursing home scandal," says Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman for the Madison Project, an anti-establishment group which is backing McDaniel.
Outside groups like the Madison Project would rather be reminding voters of Cochran's age.
"He does not have the energy to effectively represent the state," says Horowitz. "He has not debated. I hate to say it, but I don't think he is capable of it."
Under the surface, however, voters are also having reservations about replacing a senator who has funneled money back home. As one of the poorest states in the country, Mississippi is tied as the state most reliant on federal funds, according to Wallet Hub, a personal finance website. Even in an era where the tea party mantra has been to limit federal spending, the Senate race reveals voters are reluctant to sell out a candidate who has delivered money for roads, research funding, and fought to keep military bases and defense contractors in their own backyard. Cochran’s also been able to tout the role he’s played in securing federal funds to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
“There is overall frustration with the growing size of government and our increasing debt, but when you have a natural disaster like Katrina, Cochran did a superb job in securing the funds,” says Kevin Blackwell, chairman of the DeSoto County Republican Party.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Cochran fundraiser and supporter, says that’s credit Cochran deserves.
”I remember he said, ‘Tell me what Mississippi needs and I’ll try to get it,’” Barbour recalls from the first meeting he had with Cochran at the Capitol after Katrina. “All the Mississippi lawmakers worked hard for the state, but the giant for Mississippi was Thad Cochran.”
Polls for the race are all over the map, with some showing Cochran far ahead and others revealing McDaniel holds a slight lead. What is more certain is how the race will be one of the final flashpoints of 2014. The race provides a marker for how different the contest is from the tea party challenges of 2010 and 2012, when candidates were surprised by the onslaught of outside money pouring in.
“Unlike in 2012 when Sen. Bob Bennett and I sided as conspicuous losers, the candidates this time around understood what was about to hit them,” says Lugar.
In the contest, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the National Association of Realtors have spent big to cover for Cochran even if other anti-establishment groups are still outpacing them.
“They’ve played a very important role in leveling the playing field against D.C. conservative groups who have been propping up bad candidates," says Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist who consults for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is supporting Cochran.