Thad Cochran, the Last of the Naive Republicans

Cochran didn't pose for any pictures during his brief sweep. As he made his way toward the exit, the senator held out his hand to me. I had met and interviewed him less than half an hour before. 

"Hello, how are you doing?" he said with a kindly smile. "I'm Thad Cochran."

* * *

If Cochran embodies everything the Tea Party is against—the out-of-touch, go-along-to-get-along, big-spending Washington insider—his opponent is nearly as good an exemplar of the Tea Party. A lawyer and two-term state senator from a part of the state that was once a haven for Civil War deserters, McDaniel is prone to portentous, fire-and-brimstone declarations, often involving the Constitution. If elected, he says he will follow in the footsteps of senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mike Lee of Utah.

The national right-wing groups whose mission is to purify the GOP of heresy have rallied behind McDaniel. The Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth, the Tea Party Patriots, and numerous other groups have spent more than $4.5 million on his behalf. Over the weekend, Sarah Palin dropped by McDaniel's hometown of Ellisville for a raucous rally where she made the case for rejecting the "old guard."

McDaniel, however, routinely casts his mission not as a break with the past but as a bulwark against a frightening future. "Millions in this country feel like strangers in this land," he says. "An older America is passing away. A newer America is rising to take its place. We recoil from that culture. It’s foreign to us. It’s offensive to us." This is a remarkably frank declaration of the vision of the Tea Party embraced by liberal social scientists: an expression, above all, of old white people's anxieties at the prospect of an urbanizing, liberalizing, diversifying America.

Back in April, Cochran allies hoped McDaniel would be tripped up by the release of politically incorrect comments he'd made on a talk-radio show he hosted. McDaniel mused about hitting on Mexican woman by calling them "mamacita" and accused a female candidate of "using her boobies ... to run for office." (As Dave Weigel points out, the candidate in question actually did make her cleavage the centerpiece of her campaign; her slogan was "More of These Boobs.") But those and other arguably racist statements didn't faze voters; McDaniel's support stayed constant.

Instead, the scandal that seems to have damaged McDaniel came in mid-May, with the arrest of Clayton Kelly, a 28-year-old McDaniel supporter and Tea Party activist.

Cochran's relationship with his assistant, Kay Webber, had long been the subject of a whisper campaign among McDaniel supporters. Cochran rents an apartment from Webber in Washington, and she frequently accompanies him on trips abroad. Meanwhile, Cochran's wife, Rose, has been in a nursing home suffering from dementia for 14 years. In April, the rumors apparently prompted Kelly to sneak into Rose Cochran's nursing home and take her picture, which he then included in a YouTube video under the handle "Constitutional Clayton." The video was quickly taken down. Weeks later, police arrested Clayton and three others, including an official with the Central Mississippi Tea Party.

McDaniel has said he had nothing to do with the incident, but the Cochran campaign used it to charge him with "dirty politics" in television ads. (In a response ad, McDaniel called the attack "outrageous.") Supporters hope the incident has created sympathy for Cochran, whom voters universally see as a kindly old man, whatever his deviations from orthodoxy. In the final days of the campaign, McDaniel's camp has gone into bunker mode, no longer publicizing his schedule and speaking only to friendly conservative media such as Laura Ingraham and Glenn Beck. It is either the panicked move of a campaign falling apart or the play-it-safe strategy of a campaign seeking to maintain its position. Take your pick.

* * *

Back in Jackson, the sleepy state capital, on Monday afternoon, hundreds of Cochran supporters gathered in a wood-paneled auditorium of the state agricultural museum. Sitting in the crowd were Henry Barbour and his wife. A thin-lipped blond 49-year-old, the Yazoo City lobbyist and political consultant is a nephew of Haley Barbour, the larger-than-life former two-term governor, Washington lobbyist, and former Republican National Committee chairman. Now Henry Barbour is running a Cochran-allied super PAC, the Mississippi Conservatives PAC, that is spending $2 million on blistering anti-McDaniel ads. Henry's brother Austin is advising the Cochran campaign, and since super PACs cannot coordinate with campaigns, the brothers are not allowed to talk shop. Henry's lawyer has advised him, however, that he may attend campaign events.

To backers like the Barbour brothers, Mississippi Republicans would be crazy to give up Cochran's clout in the Senate. Their poor state depends on the federal largesse he delivers—Mississippi gets in federal spending three times what the state pays in federal taxes; many rely on the agricultural subsidies and food stamps contained in the farm bill Cochran helped shepherd through the Senate. In 2006, Time dubbed Cochran "The Quiet Persuader" for his behind-the-scenes work to secure $29 billion in federal funding to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Cochran's allies have made little effort to revise this image, touting at campaign stops the federal projects he's made possible; his campaign rests on the hope that enough Mississippi voters still care about Washington clout in an era of populist antagonism. It is testament to the confusion, not to say hypocrisy, of modern conservatism that McDaniel says he, too, would have supported the Katrina funds.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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