By Lloyd Gray
Having made history in victory long ago, Thad Cochran rallied to avoid making it in defeat on Tuesday.
The 76-year-old six-term U.S. senator, who was the first Mississippi Republican elected statewide in the modern era, survived a challenge that had insurgent Tea Party-backed candidate Chris McDaniel on the verge of a historic upset – what would have been the first defeat of an incumbent senator in the state in 72 years.
It also would have represented a marked departure from Mississippi’s historic practice of sending men to Washington and keeping them there for decades to build influence and make deals on the state’s behalf, as Cochran has done for 35 years in the Senate.
The 41-year Washington veteran, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the same year McDaniel was born, waited a long time before finally announcing in December he would seek a seventh Senate term.
Then for months he acted almost indifferent to the prospect of his re-election as McDaniel, who had jumped into the race before Cochran made a decision, hammered at him from the right, with Cochran doing very little in response.
Rumors persisted that he really didn’t want to run again but had yielded to the wishes of state and national party leaders. He had said in 2008 that his sixth term would probably be his last.
It was not until McDaniel led him narrowly in the June 3 primary and forced a runoff that the low-key senior senator from Mississippi began to aggressively defend his record and hit back at McDaniel.
In the end, he survived for the general election battle with Democrat Travis Childers, pushing back what had, for a brief moment, seemed an irreversible historic tide.
Cochran’s career is itself one for the history books. In a state now dominated by Republican state and federal officeholders, he was the first Republican to win a statewide election in a nearly a century when he was elected to the Senate in 1978.
Six years earlier as a 34-year-old Jackson lawyer, the Pontotoc native and son of educators had ridden the coattails of Richard Nixon’s re-election to capture an open House seat in the 4th Congressional District, which then stretched from Jackson over to the Mississippi River and down through southwest Mississippi.
He became the first Republican to represent the area in Congress since post-Civil War Reconstruction by winning with a plurality of the vote over the Democratic nominee, state Sen. Ellis Bodron of Vicksburg. The presence of a black independent in the race took votes that probably would have gone to the Democrat, a circumstance that would repeat itself when he ran for the Senate.
His House district included a significant number of black voters, and early-on Cochran paid attention to their concerns, supporting federal education programs like Head Start and otherwise pursuing a more moderate course, substantively and in his political rhetoric, than the other Republican congressman elected in 1972, Trent Lott of south Mississippi’s 5th District.
The two would be both political partners and rivals of a sort for the entire time they served together in Washington.
Cochran jumped ahead of Lott to get into the Senate race in 1978 when longtime Democratic Sen. James O. Eastland announced his retirement, and running against Democrat Maurice Dantin – endorsed by Eastland – and black independent Charles Evers, he got 45 percent of the vote, which was enough to win.
He had won the 1978 Republican primary for Senate – the last contested GOP fight he had endured until the current one – by besting, ironically, one of McDaniel’s predecessors as state senator from Jones County, Charles Pickering, later a federal judge.
Cochran from the start approached his Senate service much as his Democratic predecessors and the senior senator at the time, John Stennis, had done. He learned the ropes, built relationships and worked the system to protect Mississippi’s interests, particularly in agriculture, defense and education.
He was rewarded by voters with easy re-elections, including his first in 1984, a landslide over Democratic former Gov. William Winter, his last formidable opponent before McDaniel.
As he gained experience and seniority, Cochran steadily assumed more power within the Republican ranks, the pinnacle coming when he assumed the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.
Only once were his leadership ambitions derailed. Lott had been elected to the Senate in 1988 and in 1996 the Republicans took over the chamber and Mississippi’s two senators ran against each other for majority leader. Lott, much more the out-front, assertive, camera-comfortable presence, won handily over Cochran.
Cochran became famous – or infamous, in some quarters – by bringing billions of federal dollars home to Mississippi as a master of “earmarks,” later officially banned.
Throughout his six terms, he practiced the old-school senatorial style, making friends and allies across party lines and never joining in the acerbic partisan rhetoric that came to dominate so much of Washington. In the end, it was this low-key, relationship-building, quietly persuasive approach that came close to doing him in with an energized segment of the Mississippi Republican electorate wanting a more vocal, hard-line conservative presence in the Senate.
They weren’t happy with the outcome Tuesday, and McDaniel was defiant in defeat. But Cochran, whatever divisions he must now confront in his own party, has lived to fight another day.