Kipp Gregory looks around Biloxi and marvels at the gleaming new Civic Center and the spacious, modern visitor center. He appreciates how Sen. Thad Cochran had a big hand in rebuilding this seaside city, left for dead by Hurricane Katrina nine years ago.
That doesn’t mean he’s voting for Cochran in Tuesday’s Republican U.S. Senate primary. Like so many others all over this state, he’s torn.
He sees state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a generation younger and a hero of the Washington-bashing tea party, as the jolt the government may need to start slashing debt and getting out of people’s lives.
Cochran and McDaniel are dueling in a clash of tea party vs. establishment and old politics vs. new, and the result could say a lot about the direction of the Republican Party for years to come.
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The genial Cochran, 76, practices the politics of Washington consensus with the experience to know what the folks back home want and how to get it. First elected to Congress in 1972, and to the Senate six years later, he’s meticulously built a network of supporters grateful for the money he’s been instrumental in pumping into this impoverished state.
But fancy civic centers are now questioned as luxuries, and being too cozy with Washington’s ways is a liability in many quarters. People are increasingly disgusted by what they see as an inert, expensive and increasingly intrusive government a thousand miles away.
McDaniel, 41, is touted as a rising tea party star. He was positioned to be the last and biggest prize in the movement’s march through the South this spring, toppling establishment favorites and replacing them with young, fiery insurgents.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, mainstream Republicans crushed tea party candidates in North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia and elsewhere, and now McDaniel is on a tea party rescue mission.
Conservative groups are pouring millions into this race to help McDaniel. Business groups, as well as the potent state Republican organization, are countering on Cochran’s behalf.
There’s no easy way to predict the outcome. For days, it appeared Cochran would benefit from allegations that McDaniel supporters were involved in photographing the senator’s bedridden wife in a nursing home.
“It’s the worst – a Chris McDaniel supporter charged with a felony. Had Enough?” said a Cochran ad in response. Four people, including a state tea party official, face charges in connection with the incident.
McDaniel fired back with his own spot, calling Cochran’s ad “shameless” and “outrageous.”
So far, though, most of the political talk has been the role of government, and for longtime Cochran backers, it’s a wrenching choice.
“It comes down to whose agenda I want to see in Washington,” said Peter Wilson, a Biloxi financial adviser. “If McDaniel wins I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be sad. I wish Thad was going to retire; that way he could ride off into the sunset a hero.”
Cochran’s imprimatur seems everywhere. In the days of “earmarks,” which are no longer permitted, Cochran could methodically spread Washington’s wealth all over his state, and did. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group, found that in fiscal 2010 Cochran could take credit for 242 earmarks costing $497 million, more than any single senator.
The money has been used for a wide array of projects, including colleges, military bases, health care facilities and more.
Cochran campaigns as though his very presence should be a reminder of his resume.
He campaigns so subtly it’s hard to know he’s in the room. He walked into the Jackson County Spring Investors Meeting in Pascagoula on Thursday like just another of the 200 attendees. He quietly entered the Long Beach City Hall later the same way.
Cochran made no speeches, offered no platforms. He simply shook hands, renewed old acquaintances, and in many cases stoked genuine affection.
Carrolyn Hamilton, Long Beach school superintendent, recalled Cochran’s help after Katrina. One of the district’s schools was destroyed, but students only missed six weeks of school, as Washington helped with 23 trailers and a quick rebuilding job.
“I’ll never forget what he did,” she said after embracing the senator.
In Pascagoula, Cochran never got on the podium, but he heard speakers thank him five different times for his work.
“Times have changed but one thing remains constant . . . thank you, Senator,” said Brian Cuccias, president of Ingalls Shipbuilding, the state’s largest private employer.
Cochran has well-honed answers for reporters who ask if times have passed him by. He remains a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which goes over spending bills line by line annually, making decisions on billions in federal spending.
“I think there’s a greater sense of awareness of the importance of the appropriations process,” he explains.
The McDaniel campaign is a whirlwind. He had nine stops on his statewide bus tour Wednesday and Thursday, pushing his “Five Promises to Mississippi” agenda. It’s a familiar tea party and staunch conservative list: A two-term limit for senators, end to the Affordable Care Act, curbs on business regulation, cuts in corporate taxes and a balanced budget amendment.
There’s a theme here – McDaniel wants Washington out of people’s lives.
People in this state may accept the federal largesse, but they don’t like being told how to live. Mississippi has long been one of the nation’s most anti-Washington states. In 1870, it was one of the last to rejoin the Union after the Civil War, and it was the scene of some of the ugliest civil rights battles of the 1960s.
The anti-government mantra has particular appeal among younger voters. Being a Washington big shot, say skeptics, isn’t what it once was. Budgets are tight. “His ability to bring in the money has started to decline,” Kent Alexander, president of the Harrison County Republican Club, said of Cochran.
To others, his experience and connections are big reasons to keep Cochran around. “He really understands Mississippi’s needs,” said Anna Rush, a Hattiesburg attorney.
Kipp Gregory, the Biloxi voter torn over Tuesday’s decision, is a talk radio show host who can’t decide which argument is more compelling. Gregory, 45, still can vividly catalog the destruction Katrina caused and how Cochran was able to make the right calls and get Biloxi rebuilt quickly.
“I was grateful we had senators like him in office,” Gregory said.
Then he looks at 2014 Washington, and sees a badly broken government. He doesn’t know what he’ll do, only that, “I’ll be a day-of decision.”
(Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid.)