The race at times has had the feeling of a hijacking. Cochran, who has been on a sort of high-stakes amble across the state in recent weeks, doesn't really seem to have his heart in it. He wanted to retire but was pushed to run again, say local insiders, because friends and allies implored him—he could do so much for the state given his seniority. As Cochran has hit the stump—the first time he has really had to actively campaign since 1984—the insistent claims by his supporters that he is campaigning vigorously only hangs a lamp on the fact that this is a campaign of a man from another generation who has had jumper cables hooked to him.
Cochran's campaign has taken its toughness not from its genteel pinstripe-wearing candidate, but from local operatives who have been savaging McDaniel as unprincipled, untrustworthy and a tool of outside groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservative Fund. It's not just the nursing home scandal, they insist, it's that McDaniel is slippery, shifting his positions on Common Core, tort reform, and federal aid for Hurricane Katrina victims. (Fact checks here and here.)
McDaniel, almost half Cochran's age, is a hard-charging former talk show host who has welcomed outside forces who want to make him the sign of a Tea Party that is still alive and kicking. Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum campaigned for him in the final week, championing his support for "constitutional government" against the "old guard." They have a justified reason to celebrate their blow to the old-line GOP.
“They just want a scalp,” says Haley Barbour, former two-term governor, whose nephews Austin and Henry are heavily involved in the contest. “These outside groups don't care about Mississippi. They don't know Pascagoula from Pelahatchie. They just want a victory for their national political reputation.” That message isn't limited to Mississippi alone. The Republican Main Street Partnership, which is on the other side of the ideological battle from Tea Party groups, has tried to raise questions about candidate's local credentials when they have been supported by outside groups.
In Mississippi both sides have benefited from outside help. Cochran's campaign raised about $3.6 million for the race; McDaniel's $1.2 million. But outside interests injected $8 million, including $4.5 million for McDaniel and $3.2 million for Cochran.
What will those outside groups do now? Cochran will have a harder time in a run-off because McDaniel's troops are more committed and more likely to turn out for that vote in three weeks. His out-of-state donors, known for their passion, will be doubly so. Given that, the forces of pragmatism that have been backing Cochran have a dilemma. Do they keep supporting Cochran and attacking McDaniel, or do they step back, given that McDaniel could be the party's nominee and Democrats are anxious to use an ugly battle to tar the party more broadly? That might be the prudent thing to do, and a source in one big-money group that could help Cochran says they’re not going to because the writing is on the wall. American Crossroads says it will not interfere in the race. The Chamber of Commerce, which has backed Cochran, will continue to do so, says a source, but the level of that future commitment has yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, Henry Barbour, who runs the local super PAC helping the incumbent, seems ready for a fight. He tweeted, “There will be a heavy reload on both sides…This race is about MS's interests vs outside groups who've hijacked the Tea Party & their flawed candidate.” But what about the candidate himself? Cochran sure doesn't seem jazzed about wading even deeper into the Mississippi mud.