Over the last few weeks, it has been hard to watch six-term Sen. Thad Cochran fight for political survival in Mississippi's Republican primary without thinking of some of the lyrics from Kenny Rogers's song "The Gambler." In the second stanza, we hear an old-timer say, "Son, I've made a life out of readin' people's faces, knowin' what the cards were by the way they held their eyes. So if you don't mind me sayin,' I can see you are out of aces. For a taste of your whiskey, I'll give you some advice." The chorus, as most people over a certain age know, is: "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run."
This past Tuesday, Cochran was forced into a primary runoff, scheduled for June 24. With 99.8 percent of the vote counted, Cochran stands at 49.0 percent, to 49.4 percent for his challenger, lawyer and talk-show host Chris McDaniel. A third candidate, former Realtor Thomas Carey, received 1.5 percent of the vote. Although elections involve human behavior and opinions, which are fickle and subject to change, Cochran's chances of prevailing in the runoff don't look particularly good.
McDaniel's challenge was rapidly gaining steam until three weeks ago, when it was disclosed that tea-party activists—who were supportive of McDaniel but who may or may not have been acting in concert with the challenger's campaign—slipped into a nursing home and videotaped footage of Cochran's wife, who has been suffering from dementia for a long time.
However, as the primary neared, the harm to McDaniel's campaign seemed to wear off, and his momentum resumed. While the nursing-home kerfuffle may have been the break Cochran needed, it came out too early to have a lasting impact on primary day. And then, just as the nursing-home video flap subsided, remarks by Cochran aboard his campaign bus to The Washington Post's Dan Balz created a headache for the Cochran team. It also was a sign that the incumbent's ability to stay on script and avoid mistakes may not be what it once was.
Cochran was asked about the Affordable Care Act, which is wildly unpopular among Mississippi Republicans. He responded, "I think we need to monitor any federal programs that provide services and assistance to people who need help, and this is an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible, and affordable."
He continued, "We have probably one of the best health care systems in the country, in the world, and we'll need to continue to work to make sure it meets the expectations and needs of the American people. I'm glad to be involved in that effort."
The Cochran campaign moved into damage-control mode, suggesting that the senator thought the question was about veterans' health care. But even giving him every benefit of the doubt, mistakes such as these can cost elections. At the very least, in these later innings, Cochran was lobbing grapefruits, not fastballs, across the plate. Former Mississippi Gov. and Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour and his nephew Henry Barbour were trying everything to get Cochran into the next inning. However, even with the best of their efforts, it just wasn't enough.
The national GOP establishment is torn between understandable loyalty to Cochran and aversion to McDaniel on the one hand, and a pragmatic reading that throwing good money after bad makes little sense when this money will be needed in the general election against Democrats. Barring disclosure of some personal peccadillos on McDaniel's part, he is going to be the GOP standard-bearer in November. What kind of shape he emerges in after the primary dust has settled will determine whether former Rep. Travis Childers, the Democratic nominee, has a chance to pick off the seat, or if GOP money will be needed more in other states.
Losing would be a sad end for a proud man with a distinguished record of service to his state and the country and to the issues that Cochran has cared so much about. To me, he was part of a transitional generation of senators who came just after or toward the end of the era of the old Southern bulls—men like Allen Ellender and Russell Long from Louisiana; J. William Fulbright and John McClellan from Arkansas; Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge from Georgia; John Sparkman and James Allen from Alabama; Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings from South Carolina; and Sam Ervin and Everett Jordan from North Carolina.
After six years in the House and nearly 36 in the Senate, it was time for Cochran to fold 'em. It wasn't so much because of age—plenty of 76-year-olds have continued to serve effectively in Congress. The second rap on Cochran—that "he's been in Washington too long"—gets a little closer to the mark. It's not so much that he has literally been serving in Congress too long but that the Republican Party, particularly in the South, has changed under his feet, and he seemed largely unaware of and ill-equipped to deal with that change.
Cochran and other Southern Republicans of a certain age and time were certainly conservative, but they didn't carry the scars of various civil- and voting-rights Senate battles. They were conservative without the harder edge and more acerbic rhetoric that many conservatives and Republicans today prefer, particularly those in the South, in small towns and rural areas as well as the exurbs. These politicians don't just prefer red meat. They go for very rare or (better still) raw meat—something that's pretty alien to a more genteel generation of Southern Republicans.
This article appears in the June 7, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine