HERNANDO, Miss. — “He’s family.”
Tina Dawn Womack, 38, didn’t hesitate when she was asked over the weekend to explain why she was sticking with Sen. Thad Cochran on June 3.
The six-term Republican is facing the first competitive re-election challenge of his long career in a primary contest that presents the Tea Party with perhaps its only opportunity to oust a GOP incumbent in an election cycle that began with more promise.
Sporting a “Thad for Mississippi” sticker on her T-shirt, Womack, a native Mississippian, navigated Hernando’s 40th annual spring fair Saturday morning with her young son just a few yards from where state Sen. Chris McDaniel, Cochran’s insurgent opponent, was making the rounds to greet prospective voters.
The festival smacks of traditional Mississippi. Similar events are a spring and summertime fixture in communities large and small, suburban and rural, in every corner of the state.
But DeSoto County, of which Hernando is the county seat, is hardly typical. This northwest corner of Mississippi is a fast-growing Memphis suburb with decreasing cultural and political ties to the rest of the state. It is situated in a Memphis media market that virtually ignores Magnolia State politics. And yet the county has become a Mississippi bellwether. For Cochran, the key question is whether he can find enough Womacks here to stop McDaniel.
“We are not the heart of Mississippi,” said Moira Wade, who moved to DeSoto County 27 years ago and serves as the McDaniel campaign’s chairwoman here.
Objective polling data has been scarce, but Cochran and McDaniel partisans, as well as neutral observers, agree that this race is competitive and could go either way. Further hampering the ability to forecast the outcome: There are no historical parallels to draw on.
This is the first time a sitting Mississippi Republican has been challenged in a Senate primary. Contests for state and local political office are held in odd-numbered years, complicating voter turnout projections.
Then there’s this wildcard: Over the weekend McDaniel supporter Clayton Thomas Kelly was arrested for allegedly slipping into the nursing home where Cochran’s wife, Rose, who suffers from dementia and is bedridden, has lived since 2000. The suspect allegedly took illegal photographs of Mrs. Cochran and incorporated the Images into a political video targeting the senator that he posted on his weblog, Constitutional Clayton. The video was later taken down, but the issue roiled the campaign.
The incident received major coverage in Mississippi media, and the campaigns traded barbs. Team Cochran suggested that the McDaniel campaign wasn’t being forthright when it claimed it had no association with Kelly; McDaniel’s team accused the Cochran campaign of exploiting the incident to buoy sagging poll numbers.
Whether — or how — the matter affects the attitudes of Republican primary voters in Mississippi’s battleground counties could prove crucial. There were some initial signs that it could derail McDaniel just as the race was tightening heading into its final two weeks.