JACKSON, Mississippi — Sen. Thad Cochran is aiming to be the Republican nominee for the seat he’s held for six terms in a brutal, expensive race that has brought national attention to the state.
Cochran, 76, is trying to win another term on the argument that he’s a solid conservative who promises to continue routing federal money back to Mississippi, just as he’s done for decades.
Standing in his way is 41-year-old Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed state senator who holds up Cochran as a “liberal Republican,” the face of an out-of-touch, profligate Congress responsible for a $17 trillion national debt.
The debt, McDaniel says, is “immoral.” Cochran counters that his “extremist” rival would be dangerous for a state so dependent on the federal treasury.
McDaniel led Cochran by about 1,400 votes in a June 3 primary but fell short of the majority required to win outright. The winner will face former Democratic congressman Travis Childers and Shawn O’Hara of the Reform Party in November. The polls have closed, and both candidates were now awaiting the results in what is expected to be a close race.
As voters left polls after casting runoff ballots Tuesday, their comments reflected arguments Cochran and McDaniel have made for months, with reinforcements from an advertising deluge by outside groups that made Mississippi a proxy for the national struggle between tea party conservatives and traditional GOP powers.
Fonzo Finch, an 88-year-old retired homebuilder who lives in south Jackson, said after voting for McDaniel that Cochran has “been there long enough.” The World War II veteran added, “We need new spirit, new people in Washington.”
That argument appealed across generations, with 23-year-old teacher Kari Purvis saying, “Thad Cochran’s been up there a while. … I just wanted a change for the better.”
Purvis, a Magee middle school teacher, said she was not swayed by Cochran’s arguments that McDaniel’s view of a limited government could cost Mississippi classrooms like hers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Taylorsville retiree Allen Powell, meanwhile, wasn’t persuaded by Cochran’s promise of additional federal bounty.
“He brings home the pork for Mississippi, and maybe that’s not a good thing,” Powell, 67, said of Cochran.
But for Cochran supporters, some of McDaniel’s uncompromising rhetoric is cause for concern.
“I’m afraid of somebody that would just as soon vote to close the government,” said 73-year-old retiree Jeanette Tibbetts of Hattiesburg.
Frank McCain, a 71-year-old retired tax administrator from Mendenhall, praised the incumbent but said “mostly I’m more scared of the other candidate.”
Tibbetts argued that Cochran “has always been able to take care of us.”
She noted the prevalence of federal support along the Gulf Coast: Stennis Space Center, Keesler Air Force Base, defense contractor Ingalls Shipbuilding, and thousands of homes and businesses rebuilt with federal aid after Hurricane Katrina.
“How can you live in south Mississippi and not see Thad’s evidence?” she asked.
Cochran concentrated much of his runoff campaign along the Gulf Coast and at other stops — university campuses, hospitals and agricultural bases — where he could demonstrate tangible effects of his influence.
To win, he’ll need to improve his performance along the coast, where McDaniel battled him to a draw.
Faced with McDaniel’s popularity among many outspoken conservatives, Cochran has openly courted independents and Democrats, including black voters.
McDaniel uses that to bolster his argument that Cochran isn’t a true conservative. National groups backing McDaniel seized on the plea by promising to monitor polls Tuesday for instances of voter fraud, a move that sparked criticism from voting rights advocates who worried about intimidation, particularly of black voters.
State law allows anyone who didn’t cast a Democratic ballot on June 3 to vote in the GOP runoff. Nonetheless, McDaniel said in an interview, “The idea that a Republican primary could be basically decided by liberal Democrats should concern Republicans across the state.”
Sherron Barnes, a 54-year-old mental health worker who is black, suggested Cochran’s strategy may be a long shot. She voted Tuesday in the 3rd Congressional District’s Democratic primary runoff.
“Cochran has done a lot,” Barnes said. “But I haven’t been tempted to cross. I’ve been a Democrat ever since I’ve been old enough to vote.”
But Cochran can still count on some support in the black community.
Stanley D. Johson of Byram describes himself as a political conservative who supports Cochran and disagrees with President Barack Obama on many issues.
The 55-year-old family and marriage counselor said tea party conservatives like McDaniel have turned him off in part because their opposition to the country’s first black president “seems more personal” than issue-oriented.
“They don’t appear to be very inclusive of minorities,” Johnson said.
Jeff Amy reported from Magee and Taylorsville, Mississippi. Associated Press videographer Alex Sanz in Hattiesburg and Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.