The Mississippi Senate race is all tied up ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary, when incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran will face Chris McDaniel is the political fight of his life. When we first examined the contest back in December, we changed the rating from “Likely Cochran” to a “Toss-Up,” and cited Cochran as the most “endangered incumbent Republican senator who may not win his party’s nomination.”
Now, with just 48 hours to go before voting begins, U.S. Senator Thad Cochran — whom Senate Conservatives Fund refers to as “a liberal Republican” — is in serious danger of losing to conservative Chris McDaniel on Tuesday. Polls, viewable below, show McDaniel has surged in the final weeks, bad press notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, Sen. Cochran is offering more of the same if he is reelected. “I hope to be able to continue to use my influence in Washington to be sure that we get our share of the federal dollars that are available to help us,” he said at Simpson General Hospital, where several dozen people — both longtime supporters and hospital staffers — had gathered.
The 76-year old, six-term senator is the second-longest serving Republican in the upper chamber and, if you include the years he served in the House, then he has been in Washington for 41 years. Because Cochran hasn’t had to run a competitive race in over 30 years, he didn’t even believe he was vulnerable at first. However, The Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project launched TV and radio ads early in Mississippi to help raise McDaniel’s name recognition, a vital key to victory if he happens to win on Tuesday.
Cochran has flat-out ignored challenges and calls to agree to a face-to-face debate with McDaniel. “There’s no special reason why I should debate him,” he told reporters at the gathering. “I don’t know what the debate would prove that everybody doesn’t already know.”
It was becoming clear that McDaniel had the momentum and energy going into the final stretch, and PPD was gearing up to change the rating to “Leans McDaniel.” Then, two weeks ago, a local blogger actually went to the nursing home where Cochran’s wife, who suffers from dementia, has lived for more than a decade. After, a photo of Cochran’s wife was posted on the Internet, which was met with widespread condemnation in the political arena, but also prosecution in the legal arena. The blogger, Clayton Thomas Kelly, and three others, have been arrested. While the blogger has no connection to the candidate, the three have some small connection to McDaniel, though all involved have denied his knowledge of the event.
Still, even though McDaniel’s supporters fear the event might have distracted from the issues in the race, the polls do not seem to reflect that at this point. Perhaps that may have something to do with the response from those who back the insurgent. Citizens United and ForAmerica began advertising in Mississippi following the news. In total, groups backing McDaniel have spent roughly $2.4 million, compared with $1.8 million from pro-Cochran groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to the Federal Election Commission.
It isn’t at all difficult to understand why Cochran has been targeted by activists this cycle. A recent statement by the incumbent underscores what lays at the core of his opposition.
“I think we need to monitor any federal programs that provide services and assistance to people who need help, and this is an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible and affordable,” he said. “We have probably one of the best health-care systems in the country, in the world, and we’ll need to continue to work to make sure it meets the expectations and needs of the American people. I’m glad to be involved in that effort.”
Monitor, not dismantle, big government programs that are driving the nation’s unsustainable debt? Probably, not definitively, the best health care system in the world, pre-ObamaCare? Happy to be involved in, not opposed to, an effort to work to grow more government?
A Cochran adviser immediately tried to call reporters to claim there was confusion over whether the question had been regrading ObamaCare or the Department of Veterans Affairs. But, for conservatives, that is really no excuse for someone who pretends to be for limited government because, as we have seen over recent weeks and months, neither system is ideal and both are examples of the innate flaws of big government programs. But without these programs, Cochran has little to offer to the state of Mississippi, and he and his supporters don’t even try to hide it.
“I thought it was time for me to retire,” Cochran said. “I thought I’d served long enough. But people were saying, what are we going to do without you?” Indeed, those past favors go a long way with supporters. “He has done more for Mississippi than any other representative, senator, governor in the past,” said Josh Mars, representing young business leaders endorsing Cochran.
That’s exactly what conservative groups having been arguing is the problem with Cochran. “It’s time for Mississippi Republicans to make a choice: liberal six-term incumbent Thad Cochran or next generation conservative leader Chris McDaniel,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. An ad entitled, “The Choice,” released by The Club for Growth explains what conservatives hungry for new leadership are fighting for.
“There are some in the conservative coalition that will be working hard for Chris McDaniel,” Pat Bruce, head of the Madison County Conservative Coalition, said back in December. “But then others will be working for Sen. Cochran because of what he’s done for us over the years.”
Getting back to actual data, there is a lot of truth to the choice Chocola says the voters have to make. Let’s first state the obvious. Tuesday’s turnout, which the Cochran camp is extremely concerned about, will decide the race. They view it as unpredictable, and the demographic data by age shows the younger the better for McDaniel, or as Chocola said, in with the old and out with the new. On average, McDaniel enjoys a more than 20-point advantage over Cochran among voters under 45, and a 7-point lead among voter 45 to 65. Cochran, however, leads among voters 65 and older by an average of 15 points.
Polling has been consistent in the state in the past, and there is no change this cycle from that trend. Estimates for the 65-and-older vote ranged from 33 percent in a Polling Company survey to 58 percent in a Harper Polling survey, McDaniel led by 4 points in the Polling Company survey and Cochran led by 5 in the Harper Polling survey. In 2012, primary exits polls showed that the age bloc made up 33 percent of the electorate, which is good news for McDaniel.
The insurgent’s numbers have recovered after an initial hit he took following the arrest of those involved with the photo. Still, McDaniel was beginning to build a lead in tracking surveys prior to the news, and the question is whether he can rebuild enough momentum to cross the finish line before Tuesday. The energy is on the side of the insurgent, with committed voters supporting McDaniel outnumbering solid Cochran supporters by double-digits, and the same is true among voters who say they will “definitely” vote on Tuesday.
Second, Democrats can vote in the Republican primary. The amount of Democrats who crossover to vote for Cochran will have an enormous impact, and a staffer in the Cochran camp has told PPD they are actively hunting down Democratic votes. We will begin to see how successful this effort was pretty early on when the returns come in, particularly from looking at the turnout numbers in the First Congressional District. The Third Congressional District is Cochran’s strongest region, and unless he is holding down McDaniel’s margin in CD-1 with the help of Democratic voters, then he is likely to be defeated for the first time in four decades.
|PPD Average||5/14 – 5/29||—||42.5||42.5||Tie|
|Chism Strategies (D)||5/29 – 5/29||813 LV||46||44||McDaniel +2|
|RRH/PMI (R)||5/28 – 5/29||374 A||41||42||Cochran +1|
|Harper (R)||5/27 – 5/28||599 LV||40||45||Cochran +5|
|The Polling Company (R)||5/14 – 5/15||505 LV||43||39||McDaniel +4|
|Harper (R)||4/3 – 4/5||570 LV||35||52||Cochran +17|
|NSON Opinion Strategy||3/24 – 3/28||400 LV||37||45||Cochran +8|
|Harper (R)||12/17 – 12/18||710 LV||31||54||Cochran +23|
|PPP (D)||11/15 – 11/17||422 RV||38||44||Cochran +6|