By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Downright dirty politics is one way to describe Mississippi’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, which has shaped up as the most brutally competitive of the season. And it’s likely to be a nail-biter until the bitter end.
Senator Thad Cochran, the stately 74-year-old incumbent seeking a seventh term, is in the fight of his political life Tuesday against Chris McDaniel, a conservative upstart nearly half his age, in what has become a proxy campaign for the future of the GOP.
More than $12 million has been dropped into this poor state pitting the GOP establishment — Cochran is backed by party elders, including the still-popular former Governor Haley Barbour and almost every statewide elected Republican — against the tea party newcomers. Sarah Palin rallied over the weekend for McDaniel as the hard right sees a major victory within reach.
The race has been punctuated by hardball, oddball tactics, most notably the arrest of McDaniel supporters on suspicion of videotaping the senator’s ailing wife in her Mississippi nursing home.
As voters cast their ballots Tuesday the outcome remained too close to call, according to polling.
“I’ve always tried to make you proud,” Cochran wrote in a note to supporters, asking for their votes.
The white-haired senator defended a record of pork-barrel spending — made possible by his seniority as the GOP’s chief appropriator — that supporters say has propped up a state that has struggled to provide for itself.
But the Republican Party has veered dramatically from the one that sent him to Washington as Mississippi’s first GOP senator since Reconstruction. These days conservatives reject federal aid as wasteful.
McDaniel, a state senator from the most conservative wing of the Legislature, initially wavered over whether he would have voted for Hurricane Katrina relief, and has asked repeatedly what Mississippi has to show for all the years of Cochran’s prowess, since the state still ranks at the bottom of many measures of economic success.
The charismatic challenger catapulted within striking distance thanks to cash funneled to the state from outside groups, particularly Club for Growth, in what would be their trophy victory of the primary season.
Tea party campaigns have largely fizzled elsewhere this primary season, but the conservative South provides a key opportunity for their agenda. McDaniel crisscrossed the state on a bus tour that continued during the final days of the campaign.
The state is heavily Republican, making the winner of Tuesday’s primary the favorite to take the seat in November. But as Democrats fight to retain control of the Senate, they have suggested the Magnolia State could be in play if GOP voters choose a more extreme candidate.
Travis Childers, the top Democrat, was expected to easily clear his primary Tuesday.
Portrait via Wikimedia Commons