Thad Cochran’s Mississippi

by Stuart Rothenberg June 3, 2014 · 9:42 AM EDT

CLEVELAND, Miss. — The rain pounded the Mississippi Delta for the better part of three days late last week, but the nasty weather and a hard-fought primary contest didn’t stop Sen. Thad Cochran from attending the Delta Council’s annual event on May 30 on the Delta State University campus. The council is an economic development organization, started in 1935, that includes eighteen Delta and part-Delta counties in the state.

A year earlier, the Mississippi Republican (and the state’s other senator, Republican Roger Wicker) had accompanied the 2013 event’s featured speaker, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, to the Delta. That was just before the Senate — and then, in July, the House — passed the farm bill, which has always been of great importance to the region’s farmers.

But this year, Cochran found himself in a nasty fight for re-nomination against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a self-described “constitutional conservative” who is all about cutting spending and government, and who charges that Cochran has helped grow government and empower the Washington establishment.

If you assumed Cochran would use this year’s Delta Council event to defend his record, criticize McDaniel or ask for support from those hundreds of people in attendance, you’d be mistaken. In fact, he didn’t address the assembly. He didn’t need to. Most of those in attendance had already decided whom they will support in Tuesday’s GOP primary.

Cochran may have been born near Tupelo (in the northeastern corner of the state), but the Delta’s agricultural community has embraced him as if he were one of their own. It’s no coincidence that the April issue of the Delta Business Journal included a long, positive piece on Cochran. The cover of the issue featured his photograph, along with the headline: “Sen. Thad Cochran, A gentleman and a U.S. leader.”

The six-term Republican received multiple standing ovations from those attending the annual meeting. (I also spoke at the event.) Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who took the microphone to introduce the featured speaker, Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, roared that Cochran was his kind of senator, bringing another round of cheers from the audience.

Harden, too, recognized Cochran repeatedly, talking of his dedication, honesty and willingness to work across the aisle to get things done for his constituents.

For McDaniel and his allies, Cochran’s record of dealing with Democrats and of bringing federal dollars back to the state are two reasons the voters need to retire him. Delta residents see things differently, which is why the area is strong Cochran territory in the GOP civil war.

White voters in the Delta are conservative in many ways, but they also believe that members of Congress should be advocates for their constituents, as the state’s senior senator has been for the past 36 years.

But the area’s very real affection for Cochran also follows from the senator’s style. He’s soft-spoken, courteous and gentlemanly, and those qualities resonate with the Delta’s residents.

The people of the Delta are such Cochran boosters that they can’t quite believe that he could lose re-nomination, especially to someone like McDaniel.

Over and over again, I was asked about Cochran’s primary prospects and when I answered that the outcome was uncertain, heads would shake in disbelief, shoulders would shrug and worry would appear on face after face.

The politically astute understand Cochran needs a big turnout Tuesday to defeat McDaniel, and they worry that a small early vote reflects either apathy, disillusionment with the negative attacks coming from both sides in the race or simply disbelief that Cochran, who for so long has been seen as an indispensable friend of agriculture, could lose.

And some Republicans are worried Democrats will cast ballots in the GOP primary for McDaniel in the belief that if he wins, former Rep. Travis Childers, the Democratic nominee, will have a chance to win the seat in the fall.

Unfortunately for Cochran, the Delta isn’t representative of the state and isn’t home to most of the state’s Republicans. Two of the state’s most populous five counties are in metro Jackson (Hinds and Rankin), while two are on the Gulf (Harrison and Jackson). The fifth, DeSoto, is actually considered the Memphis suburbs, in the extreme northwest corner of the state.

While some Republicans are so fed up with Washington, D.C., they simply will vote for change, many Republicans in the Delta will stick with the man who has done what senators — and particularly Southern senators — have always done: support programs and federal spending that help constituents.

Some even told me that if Cochran loses, they would vote in the fall for Childers, whose view of the role of government seems closer to Cochran’s than does the libertarian McDaniel’s. You see, in the Delta, all politics remains local.