If anyone knows what Chris McDaniel is facing it is Haley Barbour, though it’s highly unlikely the former governor will be sharing any words of wisdom with the state senator any time soon. In case you haven’t noticed, McDaniel and Barbour (and his progeny) have not had much nice to say about each other lately.
You see, it’s been a while but this isn’t the first U.S. Senate race in Mississippi where a young, ambitious politician with a deep Southern drawl has taken on an entrenched, long serving, well respected lion of a Senator.
In 1982, when the Republican Party could still fit in a phone booth, Barbour sought to unseat Democratic U.S. Senator John C. Stennis.
Stennis was 80 years old and in his 35th year in the Senate, making him one of the longest serving members of that chamber at the time. Barbour was 46 years his junior and full of enthusiasm, yet still a relative novice in Mississippi politics.
Barbour ran to the right of Stennis, seeking to separate himself from the Senator’s voting record and painting him as out of touch with the times, especially on civil rights issues. Stennis has often been labeled “one of the last great segregationists.”
During the course of the campaign Stennis seemed to shift his votes more towards what Barbour was promoting, in essence moderating to address the criticism while remaining in full control of the message. Whether he did or not is up for interpretation but Stennis used his platform effectively, cashing in favors and relying on the loyalty his tenure had built.
Barbour’s campaign, grassroots based and full of spirit, simply couldn’t topple Stennis with their best effort. After all, whether you saw him or not, you knew the name Stennis; such name ID is almost impossible to overcome. The Senator trounced Barbour in that election with 64-36 percent of the vote.
Fast forward to 2014 and Mississippi is facing a similar scenario.
State Senator Chris McDaniel is a likeable, polished, young U.S. Senate candidate running to the right of 36 year incumbent Senator Thad Cochran. Cochran is 76 years old with McDaniel 35 years his junior.
While this is an intra-party battle in the Republican primary and whoever wins will be the next Senator since the Democratic Party has fallen so far from its once high perch, the Cochran-McDaniel race has the feel of a general election campaign with a challenger swinging for the fences trying to pick apart the incumbent’s voting record, painting him as out of touch, and using the incumbent as the target for low level shots based on Tea Party talking points.
It’s a similar tune from 1982 but with different players, and the precedent Barbour set proved this is a tough sell in Mississippi.
However, McDaniel has a few things in his favor that Barbour didn’t: social media, multiple large out of state donors, an ever growing distrust of government fueled by a 24 hour news cycle, and an already established grassroots effort in the form of the Tea Party.
But it remains to be seen if McDaniel can achieve what Barbour could not.
The real question in my mind is, what happens late in the game if the race is not particularly close (as was the case when Barbour ran against Stennis). It was a different time, but Barbour never “burned the house down.”
Tea Party candidates often define themselves by their willingness to “burn the house down” instead of compromise. Is McDaniel really willing to burn down the house in a run against Cochran? Based on his rhetoric and the source of most of his campaign support (Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, Madison Project, etc.), you’d think he would.
Both McDaniel and Cochran have pledged to run a clean race, but my sense is that this campaign is going to get really nasty and really personal as we continue into April and May.
It seems to a large extent McDaniel is allowing his message to be defined by what’s in his opponent’s voting record instead of actually speaking to the political reality Mississippi and America are facing. After all, the primary difference between them is tactics.
On issues such as Obamacare, abortion, defense, guns and other conservative red meat, there’s not really any difference on stance or major votes. McDaniel’s beef with Cochran is that he’s not forceful enough . . . not willing to burn down the house like a Cruz or Paul.
There has been little talk by McDaniel of a defined plan on how he would build consensus with those across the aisle and in his own party, not just with those he finds commonality, whip votes, and get results doing what he says Cochran has not.
Parsing an opponent’s record and calling out inconsistencies is one thing; making that record the centerpiece of an opposition campaign is how Barbour lost. Simply being anti-Stennis didn’t work for Barbour.
Being anti-Cochran or anti-incumbent in general isn’t likely to work for McDaniel, meaning if he wants to gain ground he must raise the dialogue and cease the sniping. But that’s a tough lesson to learn… Just ask Haley Barbour.