Six term Senator Thad Cochran is in serious trouble and may not win the Mississippi GOP primary on Tuesday. The 76-year old is being challenged by state senator and former talk radio host Mike McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite endorsed by Sarah Palin. Polls show Cochran with a slight lead, but McDaniel has regained the momentum after a scandal involving one of his supporters taking photos of Cochran’s bedridden wife and publishing it on his blog has blown over.
This has been a dirty campaign — an internecine conflict between the establishment and Tea Party that is damaging both candidates. Cochran launched a spurious attack on McDaniel’s voting record, claiming he missed more votes than any other sitting state senator. That proved to be false, although the Senator has refused to correct the record.
The McDaniel campaign has aired ads claiming Cochran supported amnesty in 2006 and only gives lip service to his opposition to Obamacare. Both claims — as well as the attack on McDaniel’s voting record — have been debunked by FactCheck.Org.
All this has Democrats salivating about running against either candidate in November. The likely nominee will be former Rep. Travis Childers who voted against Obamacare, opposes restrictions on firearms, and is against gay marriage. In short, he’s not your typical Democrat and voters may be inclined to give him a hard look following the bruising GOP primary.
With the Cochran-McDaniel race headed for a photo finish next week, Childers outlined his general-election campaign message in a phone interview Friday. He all but acknowledged the conventional wisdom on the race: that a Democrat like him might stand a much better chance against a firebrand like McDaniel than a well-liked, 42-year incumbent like Cochran.
“I think there would be a stark contrast between me and state Sen. McDaniel,” Childers said, casting himself as a populist opponent of “far-right extremism” and criticizing Washington for having “forgotten the working people, especially in my state.”
Childers has raised little money to date, just $51,600 through the end of March, and would presumably be counting on an influx of funds from Democrats exploiting every possible path to keeping their Senate majority. In the event that he faces McDaniel, Childers would likely mount a campaign similar to the one Cochran has run in the primary: underscoring the gaps between him and McDaniel on Mississippi-centric concerns, like storm relief and federal spending on agriculture, while seeking to reassure conservative voters that he’s no Barack Obama Democrat.
“I’ve never really been called a liberal myself,” Childers said, parrying a series of questions about his views on national wedge issues.
On health care, he stood by his vote against the ACA, explaining that he believed Congress “could have done a much better job.” But Childers also rebuked opponents of the law who continue to promise its repeal.
“It’s not going to be repealed. You and I know the numbers that it would take. I resent these politicians lying to Mississippians about it being repealed,” he said. “I’m one of those people that will work to make the bill better.”
On gun control and same-sex marriage, Childers distanced himself from national Democratic positions. “I’ve always been a big proponent of the Second Amendment and I still am,” he said, continuing: “My personal feeling is of traditional marriage. That’s my personal feeling … Just because I believe this way, it’s not my place to be judgmental and degrading to anyone.”
But Childers also supports the minimum wage increase, voted for the stimulus bill, and would be a reliable Democratic vote on budgets and taxes.
Does he have a shot?
While McDaniel and his supporters dismiss the specter of a Democratic victory in November, some Republicans in the state aren’t as certain. One of them is Clarke Reed, a godfather of Mississippi GOP politics who led the state party for a decade in the 1960s and ’70s.
“It’s not out of the question a Democrat could win if Thad loses,” said Reed, now in his ninth decade. “With our population, any Democrat who gets one out of four white people wins. I hate to put it that way, but that’s how it is.”
Childers efforts to tar McDaniels with the “extremist” label is probably a dry hole. Mississippi is a very conservative state and while McDaniel may be too conservative for some states, his views are mostly in the mainstream of Mississippi politics.
Democrats are making the same argument in Georgia where Michelle Nunn is facing off against Rep. Jack Kingston. Trying to paint Kingston as an “extremist” in a very conservative state isn’t resonating. Nunn, despite being the daughter of legendary Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, still has that “D” next to her name in a very “R” state.
Perhaps it’s more a sign of desperation by Democrats who are looking around for ways to keep their Senate majority, than any attachment to reality. Childers is little known, bereft of cash, and is an outlander when it comes to the positions of most Democrats. It’s hard to see how that translates into victory.
The fact is, whoever emerges from the GOP primary fracas on Tuesday will have a clear advantage in the November elections.