JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran is facing his toughest primary challenge in nearly 36 years in the Senate, from a tea party favorite who casts him as an out-of-touch Washington insider. But Cochran is meeting state lawmaker Chris McDaniel's barbs with a potent weapon: the Barbour family's political machine.
While Cochran has the backing of the formidable statewide network of supporters led by former Gov. Haley Barbour and his lobbyist nephews, McDaniel is being supported by groups like the Club for Growth and Liberty Action Fund that have fueled challenges to incumbent Republicans.
The result is a clash of political alliances that reflect the broader battle for control of the GOP, with establishment lawmakers who've long delivered federal dollars to their states defending against harder-line conservatives dedicated to smaller government and lower spending.
The June 3 primary in Mississippi also is a test of whether Cochran's promise of continued political clout can sway voters. If Republicans gain six Senate seats in the November midterm elections and regain control of the chamber, he has a shot at once again becoming chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
"My decision to run is based on a personal desire to continue to serve our state as I think I can by supporting commonsense, pro-growth policies in Washington," Cochran said during a Chamber of Commerce banquet in the Jackson suburb of Pearl.
The silver-haired senator, whose name appears on several prominent buildings in Mississippi, is known for his quiet powers of persuasion and for sending billions of dollars in disaster relief, farm aid, military installations and university research to the state. He was a congressman for six years before being elected to the Senate in 1978.
Cochran, 76, has shrugged off the tea party even though it has taken out some of his colleagues in recent years — Dick Lugar in Indiana and Bob Bennett in Utah, for example. The populist movement that drove the 2010 Republican takeover of the House is "something I don't really know a lot about," he told reporters last month.
McDaniel seized on that as proof the incumbent doesn't get it.
Cochran's "record has not been a conservative record in many, many years," said McDaniel, a 41-year-old attorney who was elected to the state Legislature in 2007. "The longer he's been there, the more liberal or the more moderate he's become. And to that extent, he seems to be moving away from the people of the state."
Campaign finance reports show Cochran had $1.1 million banked to McDaniel's $390,794 as of Dec. 31, the most recent reporting deadline. Of McDaniel's money, $100,000 of it is a loan he gave himself.
Outside spending has driven the race and McDaniel has the advantage — for now.
The Club for Growth has spent almost $560,000. The Senate Conservatives Fund has spent more than $177,000 and its super PAC, Senate Conservatives Action, has spent more than $263,000. The Madison Project, another tea party-styled group, has spent $25,300.
Cochran has his own outside group ready to punch back. Mississippi Conservatives — led by a Haley Barbour nephew and Republican National Committee member Henry Barbour — has spent more than $465,000 to criticize McDaniel's legislative record.
Henry Barbour, a prolific fundraiser who is on the Republican Governors Association finance committee, can tap a formidable supporter list. In addition to raising cash for Rick Perry's and Mitt Romney's presidential bids, he also helped RNC Chairman Reince Priebus win his job and later helped write the RNC report about why Romney lost to Obama in 2012.
Henry Barbour's brother, Austin, was one of Romney's top fundraisers and later moved to the campaign's Boston headquarters to lead its strategy department. Austin Barbour is now a strategist for the Cochran campaign.
And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is standing by with its deep pockets ready to come to Cochran's aid.
Cochran has long enjoyed ties to the Barbour family. When Haley Barbour stepped away from a lucrative Washington lobbying career to run for his first of two terms as Mississippi's governor in 2003, Cochran did a TV ad supporting him.
Democrats last held one of Mississippi's Senate seats in 1989, when John C. Stennis retired after nearly 52 years. Seven of the eight statewide elected officials, from governor to insurance commissioner, are Republicans, and the state has voted Republican in every presidential race since 1980.
Still, Democrats aren't giving Republicans a clear path in the Senate race. Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat who was elected to the House in mid-2008 and defeated in the Republican sweep of 2010, faces three candidates in the primary. One of them is Bill Marcy, who has twice run unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat as a tea party Republican.
Cochran's appearance at the Chamber of Commerce banquet in Pearl last month carried all of the trappings of an establishment candidacy: a small entourage of staffers, introductions by elected leaders, and lofty praise for the senator who has over the years sent billions of dollars to one of the nation's poorest states.
Introducing Cochran, Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers listed local projects for which the senator helped secure federal money: a library, a community center, roads and water systems.
"Folks, this isn't pork, and these aren't roads and bridges to nowhere," Rogers said. "These are usable rooms, usable spaces and usable roads that some of you took tonight to get here. These are things that we had to have to make our cities and our county a better place."
Republican Rep. Gregg Harper listed Cochran's accomplishments dating back to being high school valedictorian and Eagle Scout.
"The greatest compliment I heard about Thad was, 'He's conservative, but he's not mad about it,'" Harper said, prompting laughter from the crowd.
When he took the stage after Harper, Cochran deadpanned: "I think he may have overdone the introduction."
"I'm not saying he said anything that's untrue," Cochran added.
Cochran read a speech that was mostly a straightforward report of what's happening in Washington. He praised Mississippi job-creation efforts, criticized "unnecessary, arbitrary regulations," and got the evening's loudest applause when he said, "We need to repeal Obamacare."
On a sunny afternoon in early March, McDaniel left the state Capitol and drove two miles north to meet about 40 pastors and other abortion opponents outside Jackson Women's Health Organization, Mississippi's only abortion clinic. Crammed onto a sidewalk next to a fence separating the clinic from the street, they prayed and sang. Clinic escorts played heavy-metal music.
McDaniel wore a lapel microphone, and a campaign staffer with a small video camera recorded his remarks.
"The country is in an age of great uncertainty right now," McDaniel said. "There are many that feel like strangers in their land. They don't recognize it. A new culture is rising, another culture is passing away. And we stand today in defense of that traditional culture, of those traditional values."
After the event, anti-abortion activist Basil Chisholm said he's supporting McDaniel. The retired postal worker said he has voted for Cochran in the past but now sees the senator as "a get-along, go-along kind of guy.
"We don't have that luxury anymore, with the staggering debt and deficit," Chisholm said.
Cochran said when he announced for re-election in December that he intends to serve the full six-year term if re-elected. Chisholm is skeptical, saying he thinks Cochran would serve only two or four years, then let the party establishment choose a successor.
"I feel badly that I'm campaigning against him," Chisholm said, "because I think a lot of him."
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.
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