Sen. Thad Cochran’s style combines two elements that are fading fast from the American scene: the dapper Southern gentleman and the political veteran gently asking voters to judge him on his work, not his rhetoric.
The Mississippi Republican’s style was instrumental in launching and sustaining his long Senate career. Today those once revered qualities might be his downfall.
Voters today demand change and passion. State Sen. Chris McDaniel, 41, is eagerly trying to capitalize on that yen, portraying himself as the vigorous young challenger. Cochran, 76, is banking heavily on a demeanor that’s won six Senate elections and gained him respect as the white-haired statesman who understands how things get done.
The two fought to a virtual tie in the June 3 primary and now are battling for the June 24 runoff election.
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McDaniel barnstorms the state in his bus, briskly emerging at stop after stop and grabbing every hand he can shake. At Cagles Corner in Ackerman on Thursday, before he entered the restaurant that was hosting his event, he spent 15 minutes roaming the parking lot and gasoline pumps, talking to anyone willing to engage.
Cochran usually arrives at campaign events with a big political name or two; the party establishment is firmly behind him. His usual style is to circulate for a few minutes, sometimes speaking about how he’s helped the local factory, river or highway, and that’s that.
He’s been feistier lately, branding McDaniel an “extremist” and “dangerous.” Friday, he made a predawn visit to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula to greet workers arriving for their shift. But the perception persists that McDaniel is a whirl of energy while Cochran is as unhurried as a porch swing and a glass of lemonade on a summer afternoon.
McDaniel and his backers try to encourage those images, sometimes subtly, sometimes forcefully. A “Where’s Thad?” website details how opponents think the senator is out of touch. McDaniel takes lots of questions during his campaign appearance, and makes a point of telling everyone how much he likes the Q&A. He also routinely tells voters that Cochran has been silent while Washington Democrats embarrass Republicans.
Cochran’s demeanor, though, has been the same for years. He’s long been the steady Deep South political aristocrat. He follows the unwritten rules of being a man of stature: Don’t brag too much about yourself. Discuss your accomplishments and learn from your constituents. Speak softly. Don’t bother people.
“This is just his nature. It’s not something you can just turn on and turn off,” said Brian Perry, the treasurer of Mississippi Conservatives, a state group that supports Cochran.
His legions concede they may have a problem. “Is that style what a lot of people expect from politicians today?” Perry asked. “Unfortunately, cynically, no, they don’t.”
Wednesday, Cochran’s public schedule included a visit to Vicksburg, where he pointed out how he was instrumental in helping to pass legislation to keep the Mississippi River navigable. Five hours later, he made his second and last public stop, in Richland at Siemens Industry. He spoke to the media outside the plant, but none was allowed inside, not even in the lobby.
There were some hot issues to discuss, notably the impact of Tuesday’s stunning upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary election. McDaniel was telling supporters it gave his campaign fresh momentum, a reminder that underdogs and mavericks can beat the establishment.
Cochran, asked about the impact, gave a quizzical look and said, “I doubt it.” Pressed as to why, he said the two situations were different.
Thursday, Cochran began his day at Empire Truck Sales in Richland. He shook a few hands, telling employees Betty Slaton, “You have a nice, clean facility,” and Aimee Ogletree, “Good job.” Slaton was undecided, thinking “Maybe it’s time for a change.” Ogletree was going with McDaniel because “He’s a fresh face.”
Cochran talked for a few minutes, often in Washington-speak. He recalled that when he first went to Congress in the 1970s, his predecessor advised him to serve on a committee that dealt with transportation issues. Cochran went on to talk about the “subcommittee on economic development” and “rural development act.”
He also took a jab at McDaniel. “We’re not going to have any roads and bridges and we’re not going to have a lot of things that are essential to our economic betterment and growth opportunities if you follow his plan and cut all these programs and not fund budgets or vote for the budget that’s submitted by the budget committee,” the senator said.
The crowd applauded politely and Cochran returned to his campaign bus.
“The one thing that helps him is the respect level of everyone around him in Washington,” said Mike Tew, Empire’s general sales manager.
Turning out fans such as Tew is the path to victory, Cochran supporters say. They figure that many who should have turned out for him stayed home for the primary. Henry Barbour, a top state Republican strategist, noted that 766,000 people voted for Cochran in the 2008 general election, and 153,654 voted for him June 3.
That leaves a big universe of potential supporters. “We’ve got a lot more upside than Chris McDaniel to make a compelling case,” Barbour said.
Among their arguments: McDaniel’s election would mean drastic cutbacks in federal education aid, a devastating prospect, they warned.
McDaniel has called for a balanced budget and eliminating the Department of Education. The money used to run the agency, he said, could be returned to states for school aid.
“I love this state and this is where I’m going to live, unlike Sen. Cochran,” he said. “I’m going to commute back and forth and keep my family in public schools right here in Jones County.”
McDaniel says all this quickly and passionately, raising the fundamental question hovering over this race: Is Cochran’s time up? Is he too old? Does his quiet way suggest he won’t be aggressive enough to wage political war in today’s Senate?
“In today’s time there’s no place for congeniality,” lamented Tew. “Some construe his passivity as not being with the times.”
Cochran has been measured and polite all his life, so he laughed when he was asked whether his style is too old-school for today’s turbocharged politics.
“I hope not,” he said. “We had a very successful career up to now.”