The closing days of the Mississippi Republican Senate campaign are a town-by-town search for elusive votes, and places such as little Simpson County matter.
This cluster of small cities and wide open green spaces just south of Jackson was closely divided between Sen. Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel in the June 3 primary. That’s why their legions are furiously searching for the handful of votes that can make a difference.
For all the high-tech data mining and big-time spending, no one really knows how to convince the wafflers or motivate the stay-at-homes. So much is unpredictable here, and for that matter much of the state.
How many will turn out? Who will turn out? Will Democrats show up and side with Cochran? Does the push by the tea party and stars like Sarah Palin and Ron Paul help or hurt?
On one level, this runoff is a huge deal nationally, since conservative groups have made it a major test of their clout after setbacks in other states. But the race is at its core a very local contest in a state where people take their politics personally.
Cochran, 76, has been a senator for nearly 36 years. He’s an important advocate for Mississippi in Washington and a first-class ambassador for a state whose image seems to always need a boost.
“Thad Cochran has always been a Southern gentleman,” said Ruby Ainsworth, a Braxton housewife. “He’s never done anything to embarrass us.”
Cochran campaigns the old-fashioned way. His red, white and blue signs gently rise up from shopping center corners and highway exits. He rides around the state in his “Thad” bus, appearing at car dealerships, restaurants and other down-home venues.
A local official usually introduces him and ticks off all he’s done for the area. In Magee, Simpson County’s biggest city (about 5,000), Cochran met about 50 people at a Peoples Bank conference room earlier this week.
Brad White, a former state party chairman, recited the Cochran list: Remodeling the county courthouse, improving Highway 49, helping schools. “It’s imperative we keep him where he is,” White implored.
Cochran spoke for about five minutes with no notes. He talked about the value of getting along with others, occasionally jabbing McDaniel but not naming him.
It plays well in some circles. “I trust him,” said Danny Powell, a D’Lo minister.
Yet Cochran’s approach might do little to stir turnout from voters who just voted in the primary June 3 and in McComb, faced local elections Tuesday.
“It’s mind boggling,” said Magee Mayor Jimmy Clyde of the political saturation. “And typically in a second election people don’t come out.”
McDaniel, 41, by contrast oozes energy and momentum. An army of volunteers vows to knock on as many as 8,000 doors a day. Conservative hero Rick Santorum is campaigning for him. Palin, the Republicans’ 2008 vice presidential nominee, and Paul, the libertarian hero, have led rallies.
McDaniel’s speech to about 200 people Wednesday night at the Pearl community center featured 25 minutes of calls for more liberty and economic freedom. He took on Cochran, who calls McDaniel dangerous. “Do I look dangerous to you?” the boyish McDaniel asked. The crowd roared with laughter.
McDaniel’s passion gets strong reactions from backers in downtown Magee. The middle of town looks like it’s badly in need of change; half the stores look vacant and the street is quiet on a midday morning. Cochran’s argument that he’s boosted the state doesn’t play here.
“I like McDaniel’s attitude, his speech, the way he gets out there,” said Candice Warren, owner of the Spoiled Rotten boutique. “I love Sarah Palin and Palin supports McDaniel. She’s like you and me, and she understands us,” said her husband, Trey.
Other than turning out the faithful, the biggest task for Cochran and McDaniel in these final days is to find the clusters of votes to put them over the top.
The state’s southwest corner and Ingalls Shipbuilding’s Pascagoula Shipyard get a lot of attention. The Pascagoula Metal Trades Council, which represents 6,000 workers there, has endorsed Cochran, who showed up to shake hands with workers arriving for a predawn shift last week. McDaniel has been all over the area, too, vowing to “fight for Ingalls.”
Also getting candidate time is the opposite corner of the state. The Memphis suburbs are full of people who work over the Tennessee line and barely remember Cochran. McDaniel trounced Cochran in Memphis-area counties June 3.
The fate of this election could rest on two highly unpredictable blocs: Non-Republicans and undecideds. Cochran makes a pitch to Democrats and independents, citing his ability to work with others, but consultant Brad Chism called wooing Democrats a “hard lift,” since most are not eligible to vote Tuesday.
With all this uncertainty, places such as Simpson County matter. McDaniel beat Cochran statewide June 3 by 1,386 votes. In the county, Cochran beat Simpson by 149 out of 3,331 cast for the major candidates.
For many voters, it’s going to be a last-minute choice.
“I figure Cochran’s been there too long,” said an undecided Deanna Craft, an athletic store clerk in Magee, “but McDaniel is so new it kind of scares me.”