By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – When Thad Cochran last spoke at the Neshoba County Fair in 1997, he had to dispel rumors that he would be a candidate for governor in 1999.
“I really think it is my duty to the people of Mississippi and to the people of the U.S. Senate to continue my service in the Senate,” he told fairgoers on a hot August day in 1997, echoing similar comments he made at the 1996 fair.
After the speech, when surrounded by members of the media, he made it clear he would not be a candidate for governor in 1999. In a playful interview with the media, the then-59-year-old Cochran did not rule out a future run for governor – citing then-West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood, who was first elected at age 34 and years later re-elected at age 74.
Borrowing from a Beatles tune, Cochran said, “If you still need me and love me when I am 74, check back with me then.”
Cochran, now 76, is scheduled to speak for the first time since 1997 at the historic Neshoba County Fair political speakings on July 31. There will be no speculation about the six-term incumbent U.S. senator running for governor.
He is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate and the Pontotoc County native who now calls Oxford home has been involved in the most fierce campaign of his political career that started in 1972 when he was elected to the U.S. House representing the Jackson area and southwest Mississippi.
Cochran defeated previously little-known state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite, in a bare-knuckled Republican primary. McDaniel received the most votes in the first primary on June 3, but not the majority needed to avoid a runoff. In the June 24 runoff, Cochran won by 7,667 votes out of the 392,197 cast statewide.
Since the loss, the McDaniel campaign has alleged instances of fraud and voter irregularities on the part of the Cochran campaign and its supporters and has indicated it plans to file a legal challenge to the results.
The Cochran campaign, which admits it has been preoccupied by what it says are baseless allegations by McDaniel, has said it’s turning its focus to the November general election against Democrat Travis Childers of Booneville, a former U.S. House member.
Campaign spokesman Jordan Russell said, “Sen. Cochran is looking forward to kicking off the fall campaign at the Fair and sharing his conservative message with the people of Mississippi.”
The Cochran seat was never thought to be a factor this November when the Republicans strive to pick up six seats to capture that new majority.
And most still believe the seat is safe for Republicans. But there is at least a little lingering doubt caused by the hard feelings created by the bruising primary where McDaniel supporters say the election was stolen from them.
Childers wants debates
Up to this point, Childers, who will speak just before Cochran on July 31 at the Neshoba County Fair, has run a relatively low-key campaign. He won the Democratic primary with ease against token opposition and has been overshadowed by the McDaniel-Cochran feud.
“Their race really became about personalities,” Childers said recently. “I don’t know why. But it should always be about issues. I look forward to explaining my position on the issues … and quite frankly we should be debating issues and not talking about personalities.”
Childers promises that if elected he will avoid the partisan bickering that has engulfed Washington, and “will work with anybody who has a good idea.”
Childers has suggested four debates between him and Cochran – one in each congressional district.
He said that suggestion is “not overreaching and not too hard on anybody.”
Cochran refused to debate McDaniel and has not agreed to any debates with Childers.
But in less than two weeks, Cochran and Childers will make their cases before fairgoers and the statewide media in back-to-back speeches under the historic tin-roofed Founders Square pavilion.
Last time out
Much will be different from the last time Cochran spoke at the Fair. In 1997, he was viewed as a possible gubernatorial candidate for two reasons – he had lost a bid in 1996 against then-fellow Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott for Senate majority leader and many Republicans feared they had no other candidate to compete with the Democrats’ top tier candidates, then Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Attorney General Mike Moore.
At the time, Cochran said no thanks, but jokingly and perhaps prophetically told voters to call him if they still needed and loved him when he is 74.
A now 76-year-old Cochran is hoping voters do and is going back to the Neshoba County Fair political speakings to make his case.