WASHINGTON — Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who was first elected to the Senate in 1978, set up a generational and ideological clash in the state’s Republican primary when he announced Friday that he would seek a seventh term in 2014.
While Cochran, who turns 76 on Saturday, has the support of many leading Republicans in the state, he is already facing opposition from Chris McDaniel, 41, a state senator aligned with the Tea Party who announced his candidacy in October and has won the support of some conservative groups.
Cochran, who has raised less than $1 million for his re-election, had been thought to be leaning toward retirement. But Mississippi Republicans said they believed McDaniel’s challenge and pleas from powerful figures across the state that Cochran seek another term prompted the senator to mount what will probably be his final campaign.
There is also the prospect of Cochran reclaiming the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee if Republicans win back the Senate.
The primary could be the toughest race of his career. Cochran has faced little opposition in his 34 years in the Senate, routinely winning re-election by large margins over little-known Democrats. But the primary could offer insight into fundamental questions about the Republican Party: whether longevity and clout in a Deep South state that has traditionally venerated such qualities are enough to overcome national trends toward limited-government conservatism.
With some conservatives determined to replace Republicans like Cochran, he must appeal to elements of the primary electorate that prefer a more ideologically pure senator.
McDaniel has sought to seize on the new anti-spending fervor, casting Cochran — who has delivered billions of dollars in federal spending projects to his impoverished state — as an avatar of a bygone political culture
“The national debt is the greatest moral crisis of this generation,” McDaniel said in announcing his candidacy in October. “So, let’s go forth from this place making it perfectly clear that the era of big spending is over. The age of appropriations must end.”
McDaniel has already gotten help in making this case from some conservative groups like the Club for Growth, which is already airing ads in the state praising him as “the new strong conservative leader Mississippi needs in the U.S. Senate.”
But Cochran is a formidable figure in a state that has long relied on federal largess and that rarely turns over its Senate seats. He will have the support of Mississippi’s political and business establishment, which are deeply worried about what losing Cochran would mean to a state that, without him, would have little seniority in its congressional delegation.
Leading Republicans in the state have already begun training their fire on McDaniel.
“Senator Cochran’s opponent’s record as state senator and his trial lawyer practice are something that the voters of Mississippi will want to take a closer look at, because it’s very different than the commercials that are being funded by out-of-state special interest money,” said Henry Barbour, a well-connected state lobbyist and member of the Republican National Committee. “I certainly will do all I can to help make sure Senator Cochran is re-elected.”