It has been said before but I will repeat it. Today’s Democratic Party is not your Grandfather’s party and neither is the GOP. The remains of the GOP coalition, older, whiter and Southern continue to dominate the halls of power in the party. But that power has diminished in recent years with retirements, incumbent defeats and voter shifts. Where once a migration of Southern whites to the GOP sent former Southern Democratic Senators to the GOP, many of those same white, formerly Democratic voters are dying off and their kids are voting in increasing numbers, for Republicans, and not just for any kind of Republican but Tea Party Republicans.
Ironically, Thad Cochran is not one of those former Democratic turned GOP Senators. He was the first Republican to win a statewide election in Mississippi in over a century in 1978 and since has cruised to reelection ever since. Cochran’s claim to fame is that he has acted like many Southern Democrats by bringing home heavy subsidies to his state. This might be understandable in different times, Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the country, but nationwide the GOP and its supporters have seen their opinions shift and that shift has impacted Mississippi.
This shift could best be characterized by two events; the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and the GOP controlled House in 2011 banning earmarks (though lawmakers still give giant handouts in large bills). Enter state senator Chris McDaniel. McDaniel is running to Cochran’s right in the primary and his arguments have largely centered on the idea the Senator is out of touch with modern-day Republican voters. He is not wrong. Consider two examples below.
In 2010, Rand Paul (KY) and Mike Lee (UT) upset Senate favorites in their primaries by arguing the status quo was not good enough. And their challengers ran initial campaigns very much like Cochran’s; weak and ineffective. Further complicating things for Cochran is the fact he has not run a competitive modern-day campaign since 1978 (not exactly modern). Consider that in 1984 Cochran won 61%, in 1990 he was unchallenged, in 1996, 71%, and in 2002, 85%, running against a third-party candidate. Even in the Democratic year of 2008 he still won over 60% of the vote.
The rise of third-party groups pushing anti-establishment, conservative candidates is to the benefit of McDaniel. The Club for Growth has endorsed the 41-year-old, two term state senator quite vocally. McDaniel also has a fertile donor base nationally to get his campaign in high gear. But a much larger factor is working in McDaniel’s favor; the GOP base. Even older Republicans in the era of Bush and Obama have placed greater emphasis on cutting spending and shrinking government than bringing home the bacon (something Southern Democrats and the GOP shared across the region). Until recently, seniors loved bring home the bacon. Thus, McDaniel’s message combined with his charisma make him a serious threat to Cochran.
Unlike other incumbent Republicans facing tough races this cycle (Mitch McConnell, Jon Cornyn, Lindsey Graham), Cochran did little to alleviate voter concerns with his positions. The Senator did not tack to the right, he did not make overtures to the grassroots and he did not stop the gravy train from rolling into his state and elsewhere. Case in point: Cochran has been the ranking member on the Senate Agricultural Committee since 2006 and worked with Democrats to pass a trillion-dollar monstrosity loaded with more pork than a hog farm. Not surprising considering in 2010 Citizens Against Government Waste listed him as the number one Senator for earmarks in 2010, reporting he requested $490 million.
One can bet McDaniel and outside groups will bring this to the attention of the party’s base. Younger Republicans have shown a much higher proclivity to care less about bringing home the bacon and focusing on civil liberties and social issues. Geographically, McDaniel also boasts an advantage. His legislative district stretches from north of Hattiesburg up to an area north of Laurel, putting his political base squarely in Jones County. This gives McDaniel’s the added benefit of being able to better appeal to voters in northern DeSoto County, essentially a suburb of Memphis.
Cochran, for his part, certainly has his geographical advantages. Expect him to roll up big margins in Northeastern Mississippi (Tupelo), the Delta (the agricultural area of the state) and metropolitan Jackson, the state’s largest city. He should also roll up good margins in Harrison County (Biloxi and Gulfport), the second largest county in the state. But whether this is enough to overcome his failure to appeal to the grassroots is unclear. Even solid supporters of the Senator say this was a huge mistake by the incumbent.
McDaniel’s last asset may be that he represents the future of the party. While he may not be the warmest or friendliest guy around according to reports, he certainly talks the talk of the new crop of Republicans. If Cochran wins it will likely be due to generational (Mississippi is one of the oldest states in the country) and geographical appeal while if McDaniel’s wins it will be because he speaks to the heart of the party; young voters like me who have grown tired of the old guard of the party. We want results. That is why a firebrand like Ted Cruz can get elected, even if he shows no results. At least he talks the talk. Cochran cannot even talk like a conservative anymore.
So here is for McDaniel’s upsetting Cochran in Mississippi. McDaniel is not like Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Christine O’Donnell (2010) and Richard Murdock (2012) so I do not expect him to lose the race for the GOP in the general. He should cruise to victory, even against a former and popular Democratic Governor if he can take down Cochran.