Like Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi, this time GOP incumbents in Kansas, Kentucky and South Carolina are confronting their challengers head-on and vigorously defending their records, in sometimes surprising ways.
Sen. Thad Cochran is a portrait of the genteel Southern politician, known for three-piece suits, a shock of white hair and shoveling billions of government dollars back to his impoverished home state to repair levees, construct research facilities at Ole Miss and bolster catfish farms.
That spending prowess once reaped rewards for the Mississippi senator, with buildings bearing his name, easy reelection campaigns and so much public affection that he’s known here simply as “Thad.”
Now it’s a skill that may drive him from office.
The six-term senator is defending his seat against a tea party upstart whose supporters are using Cochran’s seniority as an example of all that is wrong with Washington. They have crowned Cochran the “No.1 pooh-bah of pork.”
The race in Mississippi — along with Republican primaries in Kansas, Kentucky and South Carolina — is the latest chapter in the GOP-establishment-versus-tea-party standoff that has defined the last two congressional election cycles.
But after ignoring or underestimating tea party candidates in the past, incumbent GOP senators are fighting back. Early on, they’ve locked up support from conservative and business interests and tapped formidable war chests. They are confronting their challengers head-on and vigorously defending their records, in sometimes surprising ways.
When Cochran took the stage recently at a Chamber of Commerce brisket dinner, he not only defended his pork-barrel spending, he spoke about the goodness of government — something few Republicans have dared to do since the small-government tea party movement swept through their party.
“Government — from the local to the federal levels — has played an important role in creating the environment that sustains economic growth and job creation,” he told the pro-business audience in this wealthy suburb outside Jackson.
His campaign didn’t stop there. His supporters launched a TV ad mocking challenger Chris McDaniel, a telegenic state legislator half Cochran’s age. The spot highlighted an interview with McDaniel in which he said he was not sure he would have voted in favor of a multibillion-dollar federal disaster aid package that Cochran helped bring to Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina.