PASCAGOULA — Hundreds of workers arrive at sunrise at the Ingalls shipyard on the Gulf Coast, and there to greet them are a dozen campaign volunteers with fliers and signs that say, “Save our Jobs.”
In the middle is a small, white-haired man shaking the hand of anyone willing to take his own. “I’m Thad Cochran,” the 76-year-old U.S. senator said again and again. “I hope you have a nice day.”
If Cochran is to prevail Tuesday in a runoff election against Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed challenger who came close to outright victory in the June 3 primary, he probably will need some of those shipyard workers to change their minds this time — or actually turn out and vote for him.
The Gulf Coast ought to be Cochran’s ace.
It’s the part of Mississippi perhaps most dependent on the federal dollars Cochran has made a career of delivering.
It’s home to defense contractors such as Ingalls, the nearby Stennis Space Center and military bases that include Keesler Air Force Base.
Thousands of households and businesses were rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina with the help of federal money Cochran helped secure.
But instead of going hard for Cochran in the primary, the 10 counties of southeast Mississippi went for McDaniel by 3,800 votes, nearly triple his statewide margin.
The six counties closest to the coast split almost evenly, with Cochran leading by a mere 129 votes.
All else equal, winning over a few of those headed to work at Ingalls Shipbuilding that recent morning could be enough for Cochran to win.
It’s the state’s largest private employer, with an estimated 9,000 workers who live in Mississippi, and about seven times McDaniel’s statewide lead over Cochran in the primary.
“As your United States senator, I can do more for Mississippi,” Cochran tells voters in an ad broadcast statewide.
In those handbills, his campaign makes the case. “Thad protects our shipyard, our Gulf Coast, our people, our jobs and our way of life.”
Should Cochran win and the GOP retake control of the U.S. Senate in November, he probably would return to his previous role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The power of the purse that comes with that job isn’t lost on the Metal Trades Council at Ingalls, a 6,000-member conglomerate of several local unions across south Mississippi.
Organized labor might normally stand with a Democrat, but this is deeply conservative Mississippi, and this union endorses Cochran, a Republican who has served in Congress for more than four decades and isn’t shy about using the power of his seniority to benefit his home state.
Some of the union’s leaders were with Cochran outside the Ingalls gates on that recent morning, as was retired Ingalls president Jerry St. Pe. He stood beside Cochran, and urged the workers to “come meet Sen. Cochran. Tell him thank you.”
“In Washington, D.C., in order to be in the fight, you’ve got to be invited to the table, and you do that by having the seniority, the right committee assignments, and the respect of your colleagues,” St. Pe said.
“You can argue about whether that’s a good system,” St. Pe continued, referring to McDaniel’s criticism of how Congress spends money, “but it is what it is.”
McDaniel isn’t ceding any of the votes he won in southern Mississippi in the primary.
During the runoff campaign, the two-term state senator has promised to fight for Mississippi’s shipyards and military bases, making the same kind of campaign stops during shipyard shift changes as Cochran.
“My grandfather worked in those shipyards,” he said at an event in coastal Gautier. “My other grandfather used those ships to fight in the South Pacific in the Battle of Midway.”
Yet because McDaniel has built his campaign around a charge that Cochran has helped build a $17 trillion federal debt he calls “immoral,” Cochran and his supporters have questioned his commitment to the state and maintain it would be “dangerous” to elect someone so critical of federal spending.
“I absolutely supported Sen. Cochran, because of what he’s done for Mississippi and the jobs we have here,” said Timothy Gore, a 10-year Ingalls employee and Biloxi resident. “I’ve got friends who’ve been here 30 years.”
Republican state Sen. Michael Watson, an attorney in Pascagoula who represents most of the county where Ingalls is based, said McDaniel’s supporters on the coast appreciate what Cochran’s influence has meant. But McDaniel’s appeal is that he makes the election about more than “bringing home federal money.”
“Chris understands that we’ve got big problems,” Watson said.
Crawley, one of the union leaders who has worked at the shipyard for 47 years, supports Cochran but said McDaniel’s constant message of “returning to our founding principles” and “fighting (President) Barack Obama” resonated with many Mississippi conservatives
Many of Cochran’s longtime supporters, he said, “just assumed that he’d win and didn’t vote.”
Since his loss in the primary, Cochran hasn’t taken any vote on the Gulf Coast for granted.
But on that recent morning at the shipyard, one of Gore and Crawley’s co-workers made clear the challenge he faces Tuesday.
“It’s time for a change, dude,” the man yelled as he bypassed the senator. “You need to go.”