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Mississippi Senate in-party challenge coming
Expect more in-party challengers in future races

by Frank Corder
Whether the Republican establishment likes it or not, there will be an in-party challenge to Mississippi's senior U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, and it's likely to begin in earnest this week. This is, of course, assuming Cochran runs, which by all indications he will.

Surely you've read Henry Barbour's quote on a potential Chris McDaniel challenge for U.S. Senator in 2014. If not, the former Mississippi governor's nephew said, “I think he will get his head handed to him, and that will be what he deserves."

The comment is being viewed as a party establishment perspective, but I have to wonder if it wasn't laced with a dash of personal resentment given the bashing Haley took at the hands of McDaniel confidant and blogger Keith Plunkett just days earlier. The Barbours know who's tied to who and why better than most realize; that's a large part of how they have been so successful.

If you listen to the majority of pundits and political insiders, it is a doomed proposition from day one. As one such person told me, "Mississippi Democrats will even cross over to support Thad if it's a serious challenge."

My instinct says the same.

But why?

Why is Cochran perceived as untouchable, or rather necessary, in Mississippi politics?

Two recurring themes keep coming back around as I asked this question to acquaintances from the Coast to Corinth: 1) Cochran's seniority makes him valuable, especially if Republicans take the Senate. He would likely be Appropriations Chairman if that occurs and that is a powerful spot for a Mississippian. 2) Cochran has brought home the bacon many times, none of which was more important than after Hurricane Katrina, building strong allegiances on both sides of the aisle along the way by doing so.

Right or wrong, those things mean a lot to party loyalists, back-room strategists, and establishment folks in both parties, in state and out, whether they admit it or not.

It also matters to a majority of voters. They may say, "We need to cut the nation's debt and stop the spending," but when communicated in terms of how Cochran's influence has helped the average Mississippian, the wallet in their back pocket often takes precedence over the purse in Washington.

That's why it's tough to run a values based, principles focused campaign these days.

Cochran's critics say the Senator has lost his conservative compass on a number of issues, often compromising too readily. But a majority of voters continue to be more in tune with their own plights than they are focused on those other elephants in the room. This is true in local, state, and national elections.

And that's why Thad Cochran is necessary to many in Mississippi.

But there are an undetermined number of people both in Mississippi and around the country that say they want to transcend back pocket motivations and are looking for something more from their elected leaders at every level of government. They aren't always polished or savvy as we've come to expect political types. They are not loyal to a party or even a large base of voters, only to values they hold dear. And they are willing to run and lose to advance the conversation on matters of principle.

Such thought confounds many. Why play a game if not to win? Why run for office if not to win?

This new wave is willing to tear down the house to, in their view, save the foundation. Some call it foolish. They believe it to be the only prudent path forward because the house of our current political system looks like a tornado hit it - it's unlivable, unsustainable and will eventually erode the foundation if not treated for the infestation within. The challenge of this new wave is to move voters out of such base motivations, creating a renewed passion for the foundational concepts that have sustained our unique American political experiment.

It is the commitment to their convictions that motivates their actions, not necessarily winning.

So don't expect this to be the last in-party challenge when/if the effort fails; it is only the beginning. This new wave is swelling and will not be deterred by bashing their head against a wall fortified by the establishment.

Presuming that this conversation about pragmatism versus idealism will happen at the ballot box in Mississippi, a Cochran vs. McDaniel matchup is about as favorable as it gets for the pragmatists at the outset. Cochran starts with about an 85% name ID lead and initial polling of probably 80-20% or better in a theoretical head-to-head primary poll. Regardless of the matchup, it will be a conversation that Republicans in Mississippi should have and no one should shy away from it.

At the end of the day, people who aspire to political office in this great compromise of a society have to get votes. And there are no short cuts. Just believing that you and/or your side is right or knows more about the Constitution or how government should run does not ascribe political power, no matter which side you're on. Just ask Christine O'Donnell. The wheels can come off quickly.

Two things still captivate and motivate most lives and most voters: money and power. In this democratic republic both are won by votes and by connecting with voters. Cochran has done that statewide for decades. Any challenge, in-party or from the left, McDaniel or otherwise, will be climbing Everest and they know it.

Posted October 15, 2013 - 5:04 pm

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