Two years ago, residents of the great state of Indiana had every reason to believe that Richard Lugar, their U.S. senator for 36 years, would be re-elected. But an ambush took place in the primary. The veteran Republican went down in flames.
Simple. Ultra-conservative and “Tea Party” camps defined Lugar as “too close to Democrats” and “out of touch.” That’s all it took.
Lugar, right at 80, was ousted by Richard Mourdock, a state official known for questioning the constitutionality of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and for suing to try to stop the federal bailout of Chrysler.
It wasn’t even close. Mourdock got 61 percent. (He went on to lose the general election, meaning the attempt to send someone more conservative to Washington ended by actually increasing the Democrats’ majority in that chamber. More on that in a minute.)
So now it’s 2014 and Mississippi’s Republican Primary for one of it U.S. Senate seats is in three months, on June 3.
Through much of December, there was speculation about whether the incumbent, Thad Cochran, would seek a seventh term. After all, he’s 76 and was already in the Senate a year when Lugar got there. But he said he would. And he is.
Now state Sen. Chris McDaniel had announced a run for the seat regardless of whether Cochran did.
Blood in the water.
McDaniel, like Mourdock, is a conservative’s conservative. Generally, he’s equates almost everything “federal” to “evil.” While Cochran is a conservative, he, like Lugar is of the old school and equally vulnerable to claims of “too close to Democrats.” As chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Cochran has been the quarterback of federal spending, including the notorious “earmarks” for Republicans and Democrats alike.
As the new year dawned, the stage was set for an Indiana-like matchup.
Mississippi is the No. 1 state in America when it comes to receiving federal dollars compared to what’s paid in but a substantial portion of voters love to hate on Washington, D.C. Obamacare is pretty much a cuss word in the Legislature.
Fertile territory for another ambush?
Except that it appears the Cochran camp, aided by the Mississippi Conservatives PAC, is playing heads up.
An early Cochran gaffe, perhaps, was an admission that he knows little about the Tea Party. But McDaniel topped him by saying he’s not so sure the $29 billion in federal aid Mississippi received after Hurricane Katrina should have been accepted.
No less a conservative than Haley Barbour was incredulous: “I don’t think any person from Mississippi would dream somebody running for senator in our state would not have enthusiastically supported that,” Barbour said. “I mean, the idea that anybody from Mississippi would find it a hard vote?”
Cochran and his supporters are doing something Lugar didn’t. They’re going on offense with news releases, radio and television ads pointing out McDaniel’s own inconsistencies – clearly attempting to define McDaniel in voters’ minds before McDaniel can make the labels of “too nice to Democrats,” “too old” or “out of touch” stick to Cochran.
As in Indiana, Democrats do have a strong candidate waiting in the wings, so to speak. Former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers will take on the winner of the GOP primary. If it’s McDaniel, a coalition of Democrats and Cochran fans could spoil the (Tea) Party, just as happened in Indiana.
Politics aside, of course, here’s what matters: The person elected will be part of a government, not a dictatorship. As Lugar put it, “In effect, what he (Mourdock) has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party.”
From the outside, it may seem enough to be against everything – that managing federal spending, delivery of health services, international relations – you name it – can be accomplished by opposing what the other side wants.
The most important question for McDaniel and others might be, “We know what you’re against. Tell us what you are for and, more specifically, what you would do to get us from where we are to where you believe we should be.”
As Lugar said of Mourdock: “He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results.”
It’s like what folks say about a dog chasing a car: “What’s he going to do with it when he catches it?”
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.