HERNANDO, Miss. — “He’s family.”
Tina Dawn Womack, 38, didn't hesitate when she was asked over the weekend to explain why she was sticking with Sen. Thad Cochran on June 3.
The six-term Republican is facing the first competitive re-election challenge of his long career in a primary contest that presents the Tea Party with perhaps its only opportunity to oust a GOP incumbent in an election cycle that began with more promise.
Sporting a “Thad for Mississippi” sticker on her T-shirt, Womack, a native Mississippian, navigated Hernando's 40th annual spring fair Saturday morning with her young son just a few yards from where state Sen. Chris McDaniel, Cochran's insurgent opponent, was making the rounds to greet prospective voters.
The festival smacks of traditional Mississippi. Similar events are a spring and summertime fixture in communities large and small, suburban and rural, in every corner of the state.
But DeSoto County, of which Hernando is the county seat, is hardly typical. This northwest corner of Mississippi is a fast-growing Memphis suburb with decreasing cultural and political ties to the rest of the state. It is situated in a Memphis media market that virtually ignores Magnolia State politics. And yet the county has become a Mississippi bellwether. For Cochran, the key question is whether he can find enough Womacks here to stop McDaniel.
“We are not the heart of Mississippi,” said Moira Wade, who moved to DeSoto County 27 years ago and serves as the McDaniel campaign’s chairwoman here.
Objective polling data has been scarce, but Cochran and McDaniel partisans, as well as neutral observers, agree that this race is competitive and could go either way. Further hampering the ability to forecast the outcome: There are no historical parallels to draw on.
This is the first time a sitting Mississippi Republican has been challenged in a Senate primary. Contests for state and local political office are held in odd-numbered years, complicating voter turnout projections.
Then there’s this wildcard: Over the weekend McDaniel supporter Clayton Thomas Kelly was arrested for allegedly slipping into the nursing home where Cochran’s wife, Rose, who suffers from dementia and is bedridden, has lived since 2000. The suspect allegedly took illegal photographs of Mrs. Cochran and incorporated the Images into a political video targeting the senator that he posted on his weblog, Constitutional Clayton. The video was later taken down, but the issue roiled the campaign.
The incident received major coverage in Mississippi media, and the campaigns traded barbs. Team Cochran suggested that the McDaniel campaign wasn’t being forthright when it claimed it had no association with Kelly; McDaniel’s team accused the Cochran campaign of exploiting the incident to buoy sagging poll numbers.
Whether — or how — the matter affects the attitudes of Republican primary voters in Mississippi’s battleground counties could prove crucial. There were some initial signs that it could derail McDaniel just as the race was tightening heading into its final two weeks.
Even when competitive, however, Mississippi campaigns face a media blackout in DeSoto County. So, there’s no guarantee that Memphis broadcast television stations or the Commercial Appeal newspaper will provide voters here with information about the incident, much less blanket coverage. In another potential boost to McDaniel, the region’s demographics are fertile ground for a challenger running on a national message of conservative renewal against a longtime incumbent who has always focused on bringing home the bacon.
“Because we do have such an influx of Tennessee residents that are not as familiar with Mississippi politics, we do have those that are probably more easily swayed,” Hernando City Alderwoman Cathy Brooks said in an interview. “They're open to having a different candidate's point of view than an incumbent.”
Overwhelmingly Republican, DeSoto County is among the fastest growing counties in the U.S. From 2000 to 2010, its population grew by more than 50 percent, to over 161,000, making it No. 3 in population among Mississippi counties. The region's lower cost of living, affordable real estate and proximity to Memphis attracted young families, middle-aged workers and retirees, largely from western Tennessee but also from elsewhere.
Unlike native Mississippians, these newer residents are less connected to Cochran and might have little memory of the underdeveloped Mississippi that existed before the veteran Senate Appropriations Committee member steered billions in federal money here. With anxiety over the direction of the country and opposition to President Obama running high, DeSoto County provides the perfect audience for McDaniel and his message focused on harnessing anger at Washington to foment national change.
That potential was evident on Thursday evening in Olive Branch, just a short drive north of Hernando off Interstate 55.
McDaniel attracted about 75 enthusiastic supporters to a campaign rally inside a dessert shop situated in a generic-looking suburban American strip mall. Dressed in a blue suit and white dress shirt, the telegenic, 41 year-old attorney worked the room with the personable touch of a retail politician before delivering a 10-minute stump speech that was notable for how national it was in scope. McDaniel vowed to stand with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and “fight” liberalism.
That message also has found a reception younger DeSoto County residents who might be native Mississippians, but whose history with Cochran is shorter.
“The biggest disappointment with Thad, personally, is that he reaches across the party line and I don’t really — I’m not into a Republican being a moderate,” Brian Hodges, a 40 year-old salesman from Olive Branch, said. “That’s not what I need right now in D.C.”
Cochran's critics charge that he might vote the right way on big issues like Obamacare. But in interview after interview with McDaniel voters, they accused him of failing to put up a “fight.” If that view has become pervasive, it could be problematic for a politician that has always shied away from showboating. Supporters refer to him as a Southern gentleman who prefers quiet victories for Mississippi rather than what he deems to be unproductive appearances on cable news programs or talk radio.
Cochran's slogan, “Thad for Mississippi,” neatly defines his Image and his career. Even Mississippians who don't plan to vote for him refer to him simply as “Thad.” And, while the Republican Party lately has spurned earmarks and focused on national issues like reducing the federal debt, Cochran still thinks of himself as Mississippi's senator, with responsibilities to use his power in Washington to address local concerns.
Some suspect he chose to run for a seventh term simply because he couldn’t imagine giving away Mississippi’s good fortune to have a senator serve as Appropriations Committee chairman, given the GOP’s strong prospects for winning control of the Senate. What Cochran needs are DeSoto County voters who think well of what he’s done for the state over 42 years on Capitol Hill — and what he could accomplish in six more years.
“We need strong Republican leadership in Washington, D.C., and he’s experienced,” said Southaven retiree and GOP activist Betty Farmer, 66.