So now we know. Thad Cochran is in the game.
For nearly a year, it’s been a principal topic of conversation in Mississippi political circles. Would he run for a seventh term in the U.S. Senate? If not, would he step down early to allow the appointment of someone to get a head start?
When rumblings of dissatisfaction with Cochran among Tea Partiers reached a boiling point, and state Sen. Chris McDaniel – 34 years Cochran’s junior – entered the race as a Republican challenger, the speculation accelerated.
Cochran let it continue, offering no clue to his thinking. Then suddenly on Friday morning he spoke to a Gannett News Service reporter in Washington and told her he was running. In an obviously unchoreographed followup, it was several hours before Cochran issued a general statement confirming his intentions. Other politicians, meanwhile, had already responded.
Some observers took Cochran’s months-long delay of an announcement as a signal he was not running. But when McDaniel announced, the stakes were raised. While Cochran may never have intended to retire, the idea that a young upstart in his own party would try to force him out had to provide additional motivation to stay in.
Here’s what we know right now: The 76-year Cochran will face a tough fight from the 42-year-old McDaniel, whose campaign will be well-financed by national Tea Party-oriented groups targeting senators they believe are insufficiently conservative. And Cochran has not had a major opponent since his first race for re-election in 1984 against the immediate past governor, William Winter, whom he soundly defeated.
But we also know that Cochran over the years has consistently been one of Mississippi’s most popular political figures and that the state Republican establishment will pull out all the stops to get him re-elected.
Less known is whether there will be a serious Democratic candidate, which would have been more likely had Cochran not run, in spite of the odds against a Democrat winning a statewide race in Mississippi these days. And we don’t know what the turnout dynamic will be in the June 3 Republican primary, which is open to any registered voter.
McDaniel’s supporters are highly motivated. But they are, at the moment, relatively small in number – the fervent ones at least. The only chance he has of winning is if the fervor spreads and the “throw-’em-all-out” mentality prevails in a small-turnout primary. That’s still a long shot – not impossible, but an uphill battle for the challenger.
McDaniel said he expects “a positive campaign based on the future of our state, our country and the Republican Party.” In other words, let’s not talk too much about Cochran’s enormous impact on the state over the last four decades.
For many voters, questions about the future will include what happens to Mississippi if Cochran’s deal-making skills, seniority and influence are no longer in play. There is little doubt it would mean less for Mississippi in a whole host of areas, from education to agriculture to disaster relief. McDaniel and his core supporters would argue, so much to the good. We can’t afford it any longer.
This will be the crux of this campaign, if it plays out on policy rather than personalities, civil debate rather than bitter acrimony, honest disagreements instead of deliberate distortions. What should Mississippi want and expect – and what does it vitally need – from the federal government?
Frame the campaign that way, and we’ll have a helpful and clarifying debate. Unfortunately, campaigns these days always seem to degenerate into much less edifying events. Is it too much to hope for something better this time?
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.