ELLISVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Chris McDaniel comes from a small town, with a skyline of church steeples and a courthouse that overshadows a memorial to Confederate soldiers.
It’s where the tea party-backed U.S. Senate candidate grew up. Where he and his wife raise their two children. Where, for more than 30 years, he’s spent most Sundays in the same Southern Baptist church.
To hear him tell it, Ellisville is the kind of place that’s disappearing in Mississippi and America, and that’s a problem.
Such a defense requires an enemy, and for the 41-year-old lawyer and state senator, that’s the role played by Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator, Thad Cochran.
The six-term incumbent “has been silent for too long” about what McDaniel calls the country’s long, painful decline.
McDaniel came close to knocking off Cochran in the June 3 primary, and in the days since, the challenger has toured Mississippi relentlessly and unleashed a blistering indictment of his 76-year-old opponent.
Cochran may be “a Mississippi gentleman,” McDaniel says, but the June 24 runoff is a chance “for our generation to save the republic.”
Such rhetoric exasperates Cochran and his backers, who campaign almost entirely on the argument that Mississippi can’t afford to lose his seniority in the Senate.
But in giving Cochran his first tough re-election fight since 1984, McDaniel has forced the mild-mannered, even courtly lawmaker off script. Cochran has taken recently to calling McDaniel “an extremist” and warns “it would be dangerous” to send him to Washington.
McDaniel is “a trial lawyer putting on a show,” Stuart Stevens, the Mississippi native who helped run Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “If the Trotskyites were in charge, McDaniel would dance to a different tune.”
When McDaniel isn’t talking to supporters about America’s founders, he’s blasting Cochran as complicit in building the nation’s $17 trillion debt and insisting he could have done more to derail President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
He chides Cochran for voting to confirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a Supreme Court justice and former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. as defense secretary, among others.
In doing so, McDaniel has won the support of tea party conservatives who view his campaign as their best shot to unseat a sitting Republican senator in this midterm election.
He’s won endorsements from Sarah Palin and libertarian hero Ron Paul, and millions of dollars in support from groups such as Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Helpful, to be sure, but it is the overwhelming support McDaniel received in his home of Jones County, almost 90 percent of the vote in the primary, and places like it that helped drive his slim statewide edge in that first vote.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about Thad Cochran, but Chris is just as fine a fella as you’d want to meet,” said Ellisville’s Vern Getty, an 84-year-old auto parts store owner who said he’s known McDaniel since he was a toddler. “You just always knew he was going places.”
Cochran supporters fail to see the charm.
A group formed by Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the national GOP and a two-term Mississippi governor, has run television ads pointing out the antics of McDaniel’s supporters. Among them are allegations they illegally obtained photographs of Cochran’s wife, Rose, who has lived in a nursing home with dementia for years.
That characterization of irresponsibility, along with Cochran’s emphasis on what he’s done for Mississippi, has forced McDaniel to play some defense of his own as the primary campaign has shifted into the runoff.
While hammering Cochran as an architect of spending for home-state projects, McDaniel has promised “to fight for Mississippi,” particularly its shipyards fueled by Navy contracts.
When Cochran allies hit him for calling federal involvement in education unconstitutional, McDaniel softened his previous position and said Mississippi shouldn’t sacrifice the $800 million it receives in federal tax dollars for public education.
After saying “it would be a hard vote” to have supported federal aid for the state after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, McDaniel has repeated often it’s one he would have made.
In doing so, he has struggled to explain just how he would avoid the deficit spending for which he blames Cochran, but always manages to turns Cochran’s most aggressive remarks back at the incumbent.
“There’s nothing extreme about wanting to balance the budget,” McDaniel told a recent luncheon of Republican of women in his home county. “There’s nothing extreme about defending our Constitution. There’s nothing extreme about standing for traditional values.”
It’s those priorities, McDaniel supporters argue, that ultimately define the choice for voters.
State Sen. Michael Watson, elected alongside McDaniel in 2007, said his friend and ally in the Mississippi Statehouse offers the state something new, just as Cochran did in 1978 when he became the first Republican elected to statewide office since Reconstruction.
“Chris has a vision for this country, and he inspires people when he offers it,” Watson said. “Mississippi loves its incumbents, but we also love to elect young, energetic senators.
“It’s Chris’ time now.”
___Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson contributed to this report.