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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 Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in Cochran's bid for a seventh term.
Rogelio V. Solis
Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel speaks to supporters in Jackson on Thursday. He is challenging Republican Sen. Thad Cochran 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."

Cochran, shown here at a Pearl, Miss., Chamber of Commerce banquet, makes no apologies for bringing government largesse to the state.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP
Cochran, shown here at a Pearl, Miss., Chamber of Commerce banquet, makes no apologies for bringing government largesse to the state.

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 Representatives], 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.

"His name on buildings reflects his clout and influence in the Senate," according to Joseph Parker, a retired political science professor at Southern Miss.

He says when Cochran was elected to the Senate in 1978, the traditional role for Southern senators was to bring home the bacon, steering federal funding to benefit constituents. Now, Parker says, that's what makes Cochran a prime target for the Tea Party.

"If you believe that government ought to be shrunk enormously, all of this largesse that Cochran has brought in — it's exhibit A of what you don't like about the government," says Parker.

The distinction between the two candidates is stark. McDaniel says it's time for Mississippi and other states to get off the federal dole. He has said he's not sure he would have supported spending for Hurricane Katrina relief.

Cochran, meantime, is unapologetic for his largesse.

"I think earmarks have gotten a bad name," Cochran says. He touts his seniority on both the agriculture and appropriations committees, and his ability to direct how tax dollars are spent.

"For those who are opposed to that, [they] are for the federal agencies making the decision," Cochran says. "This is supposed to be government of and by and for the people — not for the bureaucrats."

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 governor 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.

"In Mississippi, Thad Cochran's name is on lots of buildings," an announcer says. "In Washington, Cochran's name is on bailouts, tax hikes and debt."

McDaniel says the very soul of the Republican Party is at stake.

"We literally are fighting not only to restore our Republic and to save the Constitution," he says, "but likewise to restore the conscience of our party."

Elva Eubanks from Star, Miss., is backing McDaniel. She likes his promise to shake up the status quo.

"And not buckle and vote with the good ol' boys in Washington," says Eubanks.

She has typically supported Cochran. But at the Tea Party rally, she waves a sign that says "Retire Thad Cochran."

"Thad has done a lot for the state. I'm not down on Thad," she says. "My grandmother was a Cochran. But the pork has got to stop."

Republican primary voters in Mississippi will decide June 3 whether they prefer the clout of a senior senator or the conviction of a Tea Party firebrand.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.