BILOXI, MS–South Mississippi Tea Party chairman John Rhodes is fairly involved in politics. The Tea Party chapter he leads meets twice a month. An active supporter of state Senator Chris McDaniel in the U.S. Senate primary here, Rhodes has been intimately involved in endorsing candidates in a variety of races over the last few years, and frequently attends Republican events in the region.
But when it comes to the incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, Rhodes said has never even met him.
“Here’s the thing that bothers me and it bothers so many people, and you’ll see this on Facebook and the other social media: He’s been in Congress for 41 years and I’ve never laid eyes on the man,” Rhodes said in an interview. “If I vote for somebody, I want to look them in the eye and ask them what they got on their mind. He never comes out of Washington as far as I know.”
As Cochran campaigns in the first competitive reelection battle he’s faced as a senator, local Republicans say they resent the fact that Cochran has been missing in action in the years leading up to the contest.
“He’s been spotted around before,” said Paul Boudreaux, a board member of Rhodes’ Tea Party group. “I think I saw him at a Homebuilders Association event around four years ago here. But it’s few and far between.”
When local activists have gotten a glimpse of Cochran, it hasn’t always gone that well.
In a video posted late Wednesday, two other prominent Mississippi Tea Party activists said Cocrhan told them in a 2012 meeting at his office in Washington, D.C. that repealing Obamacare was a lost battle.
In the video, Mississippi Tea Party president Laura Van Overshelde said she and a group of activists visited Cochran’s office on the day of the oral argument before the Supreme Court on whether Obamacare is constitutional.
“He asked us in that situation: ‘What argument’s before the Supreme Court today?'” Van Overshelde said. “We were astounded that the Senator did not realize that the most important arguments before the Supreme Court for people since the Obama administration took office was the Obamacare arguments and he didn’t know that that was actually happening on that day and a couple other days. We were pretty disappointed that he didn’t realize that this very important issue was being seen by the Supreme Court.”
Cindy Wilkerson, another Tea Party activist who also met with Cochran that day, also appears in this video describing Cochran’s alleged defense of Obamacare. “Thad Cochran told me that ‘fighting Obamacare would be a lost cause,'” Wilkerson says in the video.
After Cochran made such statements in his D.C. office meeting with the Mississippi Tea Partiers, Wilkerson said “silence” swept the room.
On March 27, 2010, the second day of the high court’s arguments against the health care law, Cochran did speak on the Senate floor against Obamacare, saying, “It is my hope that relief can be found at the Supreme Court to avoid the potentially devastating impact of this law.”
Cochran has not joined GOP senators as ideologically diverse as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in signing onto a lawsuit from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) that challenges the Obama administration’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) use of regulations to grant Obamacare subsidies to members Congress and their staffs–something the law itself actually prohibits. Cochran’s primary challenger McDaniel on Wednesday called on Cochran to sign onto the lawsuit.
Now that Cochran is on the campaign trail, Boudreax and another Republican, who asked not to be named, said the rust – and Cocrhan’s age (he’s 76) – are showing.
Cochran spoke at a small-dollar fundraiser at a casino in nearby Gulfport Monday. A person who was present said “He actually had to read the speech from a paper which they’d never seen him have to do before–read a script to give a speech. He had to stop a couple of times to regather his thoughts even though he was reading from a script.”
While Boudreaux himself didn’t attend the Island View Casino speech, he said had multiple contacts there. “For the most part, they all said he read about an eight-minute speech and struggled with it,” Boudreaux said.
Local Republicans like Boudreax point to Cochran’s difficulties on the campaign trail and suggest that’s why he won’t debate McDaniel.
“It is beyond comprehension that a man who claims to serve the people does not think he owes them a debate as he asks for what would be his 7th term in the U.S. Senate,” McDaniel said in an email. “If Thad Cochran won’t stand up to try to defend his liberal voting record in a debate with a two-term Mississippi state senator, what makes us think he’ll stand up to Harry Reid and Barack Obama?”
Cochran’s campaign has raised just under $3 million, an impressive haul for most. But it’s not dazzling for a six-term U.S. senator with the financial backing of two former U.S. Senate majority leaders one of whom was once the GOP presidential candidate in Trent Lott and Bob Dole, the “Godfather” of Mississippi politics and national GOP establishment titan Haley Barbour, and senior influential ex-advisers to current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McDaniel has pulled in approximately $962,000 coming mainly from small donors.