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Twisty Miss. Primary May Mean End Of Road For Longtime Senator


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Next week, voters in Mississippi once again go to the polls; this time in the runoff for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Six-term incumbent Thad Cochran remains locked in a tight race against challenger Chris McDaniel, a Tea-Party-backed State Senator. It is seen as a referendum on whether the GOP establishment can beat back Tea Party fervor. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: With an historic red caboose as a backdrop, Senate-hopeful Chris McDaniel got some high-powered conservative help at a rally in the Jackson suburb of Madison last night - former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.


RICK SANTORUM: You have a chance to send a message not just to the - I know everybody's - you know, you're from Mississippi. You're focused here. This race is bigger - much bigger.

ELLIOTT: It's Santorum's second visit to the magnolia state to stump for McDaniel, who's riding high after besting Cochran by some 1,400 votes in a primary nearly three weeks ago, though shy of the threshold to avoid a runoff. He got new energy after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's Tea Party upset in Virginia. The 41-year-old McDaniel was born the year Thad Cochran was first elected to Congress. He paints a stark contrast between the 76-year-old elder statesman known for bringing federal spending home and his promised to take on Washington, D.C.


CHRIS MCDANIEL: Now, Senator Cochran has been there for 42 years, and no one can name a single fight that he's led for the conservative movement. It's time for a change.


ELLIOTT: McDaniel's message of smaller government, term limits and curtailing spending resonate with Suzanne O'Keefe, a retired Madison real estate agent.

O'KEEFE: I'm ready for change. I want Washington cleaned out, and I am emphatically for Chris. I believe in everything he says. He's a Christian. I think he's what we need in Washington to clean out the scumbags.

ELLIOTT: But Cochran has the backing of both Washington and Mississippi's top Republicans - Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Governor Phil Bryant and former Governor Haley Barbour to name a few. He's even got a famous quarterback behind him.


BRETT FAVRE: I've learned through football that strong leadership can be the difference between winning and losing.

ELLIOTT: Brett Favre cut this Chamber of Commerce ad.


FAVRE: Mississippi can win and win big with Thad Cochran as our strong voice in Washington.

ELLIOTT: The tight race has taken some bizarre twists. Several of McDaniel's supporters were arrested for photographing Cochran's bedridden wife in her nursing home. And on the night of the primary, Tea Party officials got locked in a county courthouse after midnight, prompting an investigation. The Cochran campaign has used the scandals to make McDaniel seem unpredictable and even dangerous.

But Cochran has his own issues. The candidate stunned an audience recently as he recalled his boyhood in the country and, quote, "all kinds of indecent thing with animals." In this week, there are allegations from Democrats here that the Cochran camp is spreading walking-around money to draw in black crossover voters. The PAC Friends of Thad Cochran is running this ad on African-American radio stations.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I urge you to vote Thad Cochran June 24. He's been good for Mississippi. He's been good for black folk.

ELLIOTT: At a lunch stop at the Sawmill Restaurant in Wiggins, Mississippi, Thad Cochran greets a black family having a chicken-and-dumplings lunch.


SENATOR THAD COCHRAN: Thanks for wearing my sticker.

ELLIOTT: Matthew Lawton, from nearby Gulfport, is wearing a sticker that says simply, Thad.

M. LAWTON: He did a lot for Mississippi. He's proven himself well. So no need to change (laughing).

ELLIOTT: Like most African-American voters in Mississippi, Lawton and his wife, Lynette, typically vote...

LYNETTE LAWTON: Democrat. But I'm going to vote for Thad. I voted for him before, so I'm going to stick with him. I think he's a good man

ELLIOTT: They didn't vote in the primary, so they're free to cast a ballot in the GOP runoff. The Cochran camp needs these new voters to make up for McDaniel's energized Tea Party base. On the campaign trail, Cochran sounds as if this new hard-fought political climate is unfamiliar territory.

COCHRAN: I always prefer to be unopposed for reelection, but apparently I will have opposition. And I think that's fine. I'm prepared.

ELLIOTT: But Senator Cochran has more than just apparent opposition. He's in the very fight of his career come Tuesday. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Madison, Mississippi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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