In Mississippi, A Tea Party Challenger Takes On A GOP Institution

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel speaks to supporters in Jackson on Thursday. He is challenging Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in Cochran’s bid for a seventh term.

The Tea Party Express bus tour made a recent swing through Mississippi, stopping on the lush grounds of the state capitol in Jackson.

It’s a strategic stop to rally support for a state senator who is giving longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran the re-election battle of his career. The Senate primary here is the latest episode in the national GOP power struggle between establishment forces and Tea Party upstarts.

“The conservative movement is starting its life again,” challenger Chris McDaniel says to the small crowd gathered under sprawling oaks and magnolias. “And it’s happening right here in Mississippi. Right? A revival.”

At 42, McDaniel styles himself as a fighter in the model of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ready to take on the powers in Washington, D.C. But first, he has to unseat a powerful and popular incumbent.

“I like Thad Cochran,” he says. “When he went there in 1973 [to the House of Representative], Richard Nixon was your president. It was a different era then,” says McDaniel. “Perhaps at the time it was fashionable to spend money recklessly. But those days have passed.”

To show just what an institution McDaniel is up against, take a walk around the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Hattiesburg, where the student union building is called the Thad Cochran Center. You can find something named for Cochran in just about every county in Mississippi…

…Nicknamed Gentleman Thad for his mild manner, Cochran, 76, comes off as a grandfatherly figure on the campaign trail, telling long-winded stories about his days as a student at Ole Miss, and recapping his political journey from the House to the Senate in 1978.

“I know I don’t look that old, but I’m beginning to be a senior member of the U.S. Senate,” he tells students at Desoto County High School.

Cochran is the third-longest serving senator, and is now seeking his seventh term.

At a campaign stop at City Hall in Horn Lake, Miss., Cochran is greeted like an old friend.

“Senator, how’s my buddy?” says Sluggo Davis, shaking Cochran’s hand and slapping him on the back.

“Good to see you, Mr. Clerk,” Cochran says, working the crowd.

Davis is the chancery clerk for Desoto County, a bustling area in north Mississippi, near Memphis.

“Thad’s going to be the winner,” Davis says. “He’s done a tremendous amount of work for Desoto County, state of Mississippi and Sluggo Davis.”

Davis points to the new Interstate 269 outside of Memphis as evidence of Cochran’s influence.

“Mississippi’s a poor state,” he says. “We need all the help we can get.”

Cochran is one in a line of senators who have brought billions in federal spending to Mississippi, and the GOP establishment wants voters to know that matters. Cochran has the backing of political titans, including former Gov. and Republican rainmaker Haley Barbour, and many of the state’s top elected officials.

“I’m supporting Thad Cochran,” says Gov. Phil Bryant. “Sen. Cochran has done more for this state than anyone I know in public service.”

As the establishment stands behind Cochran, conservative groups are trying to help McDaniel. Club for Growth is running television ads to counter Cochran’s clout.