Thad Cochran, the Last of the Naive Republicans

A veteran senator's fight for political survival is the poignant story of the tensions wracking today's GOP.
Associated Press

MERIDIAN, Miss.—My question was simple, but it wasn't clear Senator Thad Cochran had any idea what I was talking about. Why, I wanted to know, did he think Mississippi needed him in the U.S. Senate?

"I think my service in the House of Representatives and Senate have shown the kind of senator I'll continue to be, trying to work to help create opportunities for new and better-paying jobs for more and more Americans," Cochran, a slight, soft-spoken 76-year-old whose white hair flops across his forehead, told me. "To do this, we've got to have good working relationships with the international community, trying to contribute through our politics to peace and security. Prosperity exists because we do have peace and security."

Cochran's critics, I noted, believe things aren't going so well and Washington needs to be shaken up. He did not seem to agree. "I think it's a good, competitive environment, where the best ideas emerge and end up being approved by Congress and enacted into law," he said. "I think our system is designed to help us do that and to continue to be successful when we're competing with a lot of economies that don't have the capacity to grow and prosper as we do."

Defeating Cochran, who has been in Washington for 41 years, has emerged as the top priority of the right wing of the Republican Party this year, and it's not hard to see why. Mild-mannered to the point of self-effacement, Cochran seems to have as much fighting spirit as a guppy. He told the Washington Post last week that he would have preferred to retire—"I thought I'd served long enough"—but "people were saying, what are we going to do without you?” In that interview and others, he has often seemed confused. Asked about the national debt, he wandered off on a tangent about free trade.

Ever since the Tea Party suddenly rose from the right in 2010, Republican institutionalists in Washington have been in a state of disoriented panic. Some who believed their decades of unchallenged power would insulate them from petty attacks—Bob Bennett of Utah, Dick Lugar of Indiana—were taught a stern lesson instead. More recently, dealmaking senators like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham have taken great pains to shore up their right flank, spending millions to strangle potential challengers in the crib, however small-time they might seem. If Cochran is uniquely vulnerable, it is because he represents the last of a dying breed—the Naive Establishmentarian, a Republican who is unwilling or unable to learn the new folkways of a party that has shifted under his feet.

You could not get a clearer avatar than Cochran—a former chairman of the agriculture and appropriations committees who has hauled home hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks over the years while making barely a ripple personality-wise—for the type of Republican the Tea Party has made it its mission to eliminate, both temperamentally and in policy terms. And so, last fall, a two-term Mississippi state senator aligned with the Tea Party, Chris McDaniel, entered the GOP primary against him. Many expected Cochran, who had less than $1 million in his campaign account at the time, to retire. But in December, he announced he would seek reelection. On Tuesday, the last of the naive Republicans may survive, thanks to his allies' last-minute effort to prop him up. Or he may go down as the last senator the Tea Party managed to catch unprepared.

As the primary neared, Cochran's campaign has sought to create the impression of a candidate fighting vigorously for survival, setting him on an intensive, two-week bus tour around the state. Unhelpfully for a man trying to defeat the image that he is more at home in Washington than Mississippi, he has sometimes sounded like an awestruck tourist, as when he told the Wall Street Journal, "It's just good to be home, in the warmth of the friendships of people I don’t get to see as often as I would like because I’m in Washington most of the time." And while his campaign touts his long days and punishing schedule on the trail, much of the tour has not been advertised publicly. At a coffee shop here Monday morning, I watched as Cochran's staff moved him from place to place like a prop; Representative Gregg Harper, a supporter, had to remind him to greet patrons, and he was mostly silent as he shook hands, standing still and listening as Harper made conversation.

Cochran proceeded to Meridian's central square, where Mississippi's aggressively folksy, jeans-wearing governor, Phil Bryant, whipped up the crowd in front of a peeling dark-wood gazebo. Bryant's eyes narrowed as he inveighed against the outsiders who, he says, look down on Mississippians and want to tell them what to do and how to vote. 

"Now they tell us, 'It's time for a change,'" he said, his deeply grooved face settling into a sneer. "'Oh, we're just mad,' they say. Well, that'd be like trading Peyton Manning because you got mad at the city of Denver." One wonders whether Bryant watched the last Super Bowl, in which an aging Manning performed abysmally and the Broncos were trounced by the young, dynamic Seattle Seahawks.

Cochran's speech was not so fiery. He shuffled onto the stage and spoke for two and a half minutes to the group of about 100 local people, many of them hospital workers taking a morning break. "Standing out here, I couldn't help but think back to my first days in elected politics," he mused, recalling his old friend Sonny Montgomery, a Democratic member of Congress who has been dead for eight years.

I followed Cochran from the square to a local diner, Jean's Restaurant, where patrons swiveled away from plastic plates of boiled okra and corn fritters to shake his hand. On the wall were two framed photographs of Chris McDaniel. The restaurant's owner, Diane Trammell, told me McDaniel had visited twice and stayed for an hour each time. "I don't recall the last time I seen Thad," she said. She'd always voted for Cochran in the past, but now she wasn't sure. 

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

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