JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Establishment Republicans backing Sen. Thad Cochran launched a campaign Friday to brand GOP challenger Chris McDaniel a candidate who would deeply cut federal education dollars on which Mississippi schools rely. The six-term senator, they said, would protect money for students and teachers.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour offered a preview for what his pro-Cochran super PAC and its allies had planned for the weeks before McDaniel and Cochran face off in a June 24 runoff for the GOP nomination for the Senate. That contest reflects the philosophical split between the establishment-minded Republicans and the new-to-politics tea party outsiders who relish upending longtime political figures.
A McDaniel spokesman said Barbour was "spouting Democratic scare tactics about the dangers of fiscal responsibility."
Democrats, meanwhile, were preparing for the prospect that their nominee, former Rep. Travis Childers, could face not the genteel, entrenched Cochran but McDaniel, a state senator and former talk show host with hours of audio, some provocative, in the public realm.
No one predicts Democrats have a realistic shot at winning the seat in a state that last elected a Democratic senator in 1982. But the failure of either Republican to win the nomination in Tuesday's primary re-set the race for the runoff.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Barbour said voters soon would be hearing plenty about McDaniel's opposition to the Education Department and the roughly $800 million the state receives for students from kindergarten through high school.
"Not 1 percent of Mississippi voters know he says that," Barbour said.
That was likely to change.
McDaniel, elected to the state Senate in 2007, has said the federal government should have no role in education, not even in helping pay for it.
"The word 'education' is not in the Constitution. Because the word is not in the Constitution, it's none of their business," McDaniel said during an April 10 campaign event. "The Department of Education is not constitutional."
State records show that for the current budget year, Mississippi is spending about $3.3 billion on elementary and secondary education. About $800 million of that, or 25 percent, comes from the federal government. And that sum doesn't account for spending at community colleges or universities that receive federal dollars. It also leaves out student loans and grants, faculty grants, job training programs or funding for students with special needs.
"He's talking about wiping out special education, for autism, physically disabled, mentally disabled, kids who are just slow," said Barbour, who worked in President Ronald Reagan's White House and was the Republican National Committee chairman. "That will all be gone if McDaniel gets his way."
In a statement, McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch dismissed Barbour's criticism.
"Education is a vital and core function of government and Chris supports efforts to improve education in Mississippi, but unfortunately Thad and his allies will do anything — including using Democratic talking points and scare tactics to try to hold onto power," Fritsch said.
The Barbour-backed Mississippi Conservatives super PAC already has spent $1.7 million to help Cochran. That sum was expected to climb in the coming weeks as the group hammers McDaniel on education spending.
McDaniel made the original comments well before Tuesday's primary, yet Cochran did not make it an issue.
"He campaigned like he's always campaigned," Barbour said of his friend. "He's a true gentleman. He never says anything bad about his opponents — or anybody, for that matter."
Cochran continued that civility on Friday. At tornado-damaged Joyner Elementary School in Tupelo, he declined to talk politics while Sen. Roger Wicker, his Republican colleague, stood at his side in a reminder that most of the GOP's elected leaders in the state are backing Cochran's bid.
A Cochran spokesman said the senator thought it was inappropriate to talk politics at a disaster site.
That's where the super PAC and Barbour can help. Outside money already has been a driving factor in the race.
Third-party groups spent about $8.4 million in the primary, a staggering sum for a state with 3 million residents and relatively inexpensive television advertising rates. McDaniel enjoyed a 2-to-1 tilt in his favor in outside spending.
McDaniel on Friday campaigned in heavily Republican DeSoto County, where he won by a wide margin Tuesday.
McDaniel also sent a letter to Cochran challenging him to a debate. Cochran declined to debate McDaniel before the primary, saying the challenger was distorting his record in Washington.
Democrats were pouring over hours of audio from McDaniel's time hosting a syndicated Christian conservative radio program. Already, clips of McDaniel blaming gun violence on hip-hop, calling Mexican women "mamacitas" and saying he would move to Mexico rather than pay reparations to black people for slavery.
Those clips emerged before McDaniel was considered a likely nominee. And they might not make a difference in a deeply conservative state in which McDaniel performed well even in some coastal areas where Cochran has a deep well of support.
Childers, who won the Democratic nomination for Senate, said he expects a brutal race to November if McDaniel wins the Republican runoff.
"He and all of his out-of-state cronies — just as they have attacked Sen. Cochran, they will do that to me," Childers said in an interview Friday with the AP. "I say to them: Mississippi's Senate seat is not for sale to special interest groups."
Elliott reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.