LLOYD GRAY: History is on Cochran’s side

LLOYD GRAY

LLOYD GRAY

With a little more than two months remaining in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, challenger Chris McDaniel has this to ponder: It’s been 72 years since an incumbent Mississippi senator was voted out of office, and he’d been there only a year.

Wall Doxey, the incumbent in the 1942 election, had won a special election the year before to fill out the unexpired term of Sen. Pat Harrison, who died in office. James O. Eastland – who served a few months as an appointed senator before the special election – came back to defeat Doxey in the next round.

Thus began a 36-year Senate run for the cigar-chomping, Scotch-sipping Delta planter. He has been one of only five men – including John Stennis, Trent Lott, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker – who have represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate since the late 1940s. Their cumulative record in re-election campaigns is 20 wins and no losses. McDaniel’s re-election target, Cochran, is 5-0 in such races.

McDaniel is banking on this year being different. He’s hoping the idea of the influential veteran insider – for decades Mississippi’s prototypical senator – no longer resonates with the voters. He and his Tea Party supporters and national political action committee bankrollers are counting on a revolt against business-as-usual in Washington – at least among Republican primary voters – to carry the day against representatives of the status quo, even the GOP establishment status quo.

But after months of active campaigning, McDaniel’s goal remains a long shot. Cochran has made many friends and few enemies over the years, and that certainly helps his re-election prospects for a seventh term. As important, however, is Mississippians’ historic comfort with long-term incumbents.

In Mississippi, congressional incumbency – in the House as well as the Senate – used to be a virtual guarantee of a lifetime job. With rare exceptions, the only time a new person would get elected to Congress would be when a seat opened by retirement or resignation.

That changed in 2010. Two congressional incumbents – one a long-timer, another finishing his first full term – lost their seats to challengers. But Gene Taylor in the coastal 4th District, a 21-year-veteran, and Travis Childers in Northeast Mississippi’s 1st District, who’d been in the House two and a half years, were Democrats in Republican districts. The voters’ association of the two with national Democrats in Congress and the White House, in spite of the fact that both often defied the party leadership, made their defeat in the first Obama administration mid-term election predictable – at least in hindsight.

Still, Alan Nunnelee in the 1st and Steven Palazzo in the 4th did what no House challenger had done since 1964 in Mississippi by defeating an incumbent in a race where redrawing of districts to pit incumbents against one another or create a black majority district had not played a role.

This year’s elections – and not just for the Senate – will test whether that was an aberration. While Nunnelee will cruise to re-election against nominal Democratic and third-party opposition, Taylor, the 21-year congressional veteran, is challenging Palazzo for his old seat, this time as a Republican. If Palazzo can clear this hurdle, he may join the ranks of the congressmen-for-life who have dominated Mississippi politics.

That brings us back to Cochran and McDaniel. Thad Cochran, who served six years in the House before election to the Senate, has been in Washington for 44 years. Not only has Chris McDaniel never served in Washington, some of his campaign statements indicate he’s not familiar with policy details in the nation’s capital.

Some might find that refreshing, others unsettling. The Cochran campaign refrain focuses on the latter. So far there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell in the direction of the challenger over the long-revered incumbent. In a state that doesn’t cotton much to change of any kind, McDaniel’s window of opportunity to break that 20-0 streak by changing the dynamics of this campaign won’t last much longer.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.