For years – literally decades – Thad Cochran has been one of Mississippi’s most favored, if not favorite, politician.
Hardly any Mississippian – regardless of race, political affiliation, socioeconomic condition, religion or residency – had anything bad to say about Cochran, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1972 and to the U.S. Senate in 1978.
Even his 1984 campaign, which no doubt was his toughest until this year, was a civil affair. After all, both Cochran and his 1984 Democratic opponent, former Gov. William Winter, have through the years been about as civil as two politicians could be.
In August 2006, a Survey USA poll listed Cochran’s favorability rating at 66 percent and 28 percent negatives. I don’t even get ratings like that in my own home.
Cochran probably does not get favorability ratings like that now after the bruising Republican primary and runoff against second-term state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, a Tea Party favorite.
In a recent poll by Public Policy Polling, known as PPP, 47 percent of the voters approved of the job Cochran was doing while 37 percent disapproved – a dramatic drop from the earlier Survey USA numbers.
It should be pointed out that Cochran still has a 16-point lead in the poll against his November general election opponent – Democrat Travis Childers of Booneville, a former member of the U.S. House. But Cochran garnered only 40 percent support against Childers – a surprisingly low number for a six-term incumbent. And while Mississippi has strong Republican tendencies, it is unusual for a Democrat to get less than 40 percent of the vote in statewide elections.
It should not be surprising that Cochran’s approval rating has dropped. After all, he was hammered hard by McDaniel for not being conservative enough. McDaniel actually led the first primary, but could not garner the majority needed to avoid the runoff.
In the runoff, Cochran did something unusual. He moved to the center and courted Democratic voters to help him defeat McDaniel. While the number of Democrats lured to vote for him in the Republican runoff has been exaggerated by some, there is no question that in an election where Cochran won by less than 2 percentage points they made a difference.
But since that election, McDaniel and his supporters have not gone away. They have accused Cochran and his supporters of everything from relying on Democrats to win a Republican primary, to race baiting to actual voter fraud.
The PPP poll showed that at the current time Cochran actually has higher approval rating with Democrats than Republicans. But it is reasonable to expect most of those Democrats will return to Childers in November.
If that is the case, it does present some interesting dynamics for the Cochran campaign.
Does he run back to the right in the general election and does he attack Childers for being beholden to President Barack Obama and Washington liberals? That line of attack is a common one by Mississippi Republicans against Democrats. But will it work for Cochran when that is essentially what McDaniel accused Cochran of doing, and Cochran responded by courting Democratic voters to help him win the Republican primary?
Plus, there is another element. Most would agree that the Republican primary between Cochran and McDaniel was contentious and often the attacks became personal. Some would say they still are even after the election is over.
Now, Cochran supporters can say the campaign was personal and contentious because of McDaniel. But that is not the perception of McDaniel voters, who represent a significant segment of the Republican base.
Because of this, Cochran for the first time in his long and iconic political career is perceived by some as being a negative campaigner. He has had the luxury in the past because of the good will he has built through the years of not having to engage to any extent in negative campaigning.
He has not had to get his hands dirty. The perception is that with the aid of former Gov. Haley Barbour and his nephews – Henry and Austin – who are working to help Cochran win re-election, he got his hands dirty in the Republican primary. Will he again in November?
Thad Cochran has been and is viewed as a heavy favorite to win re-election to a seventh term in the U.S. Senate.
But there is no doubt the bruising and unusual nature of the Republican primary and the attacks that continue from fellow Republicans have created some interesting dynamics. Childers is able to sit back and watch Cochran be hammered as an electoral thief, and he can rightfully say he has nothing to do with those charges.
The question is can Childers give people a reason to vote for him during a time frame when some doubts have been created with some of the electorate about Cochran? Childers has a limited amount of time, during this vulnerable period for Cochran, to establish himself as a legitimate candidate – one to be taken seriously.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter for the Daily Journal in Jackson. Contact him at (601) 946-9931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.