By Mark Shields
The bloody Republican primary in Mississippi where the six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran faces the political battle of his life in a June 24 runoff election against tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel teaches us once again that defeat in sports or in politics doesn't necessarily build character. But, believe me, political defeat, just the prospect of it, really reveals character.
About Cochran, who never practiced racial politics, the conservative political historian Michael Barone once wrote, "(he) has come to personify a vanishing breed of Southern Republican -- amiable to all, conservative but not rigidly so, a devoted institutionalist, and a proficient procurer of funding earmarks for his poor, rural state." That formula had helped Cochran win nine straight Mississippi elections and considerable influence on Capitol Hill that directly contributed to his Magnolia State constituents leading the nation by getting $3 back from Washington for every $1 they sent in federal taxes.
But this year, national conservative groups (led by the anti-tax Club for Growth, which kicked in $2.5 million) have spent $5 million -- overwhelmingly in attacks on Cochran -- to aid McDaniel, who won 49.5 percent of the first primary vote against Cochran's 49 percent. In Mississippi, to become the party nominee for November, a candidate must first win 50 percent of the primary vote. Thus the runoff.
Former Republican National Chairman and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Cochran stalwart, is spoiling for a fight. After the Club for Growth gratuitously called upon Cochran to withdraw from the June 24 election and concede defeat, Barbour, referring to the failure of that group and its tea party allies to defeat any Republican incumbent senator in this year's primaries, counterattacked, telling the Washington Post: "They've bled themselves white trying to get the only scalp left. They know if Cochran wins they're out of business. They will have gone zero for 2014."
Generally, when any incumbent candidate has been forced into a runoff primary, it has been good news for the challenger. The theory is that most voters already had made up their minds about the better-known incumbent and, barring some major negative disclosure emerging about the challenger, voter support for the lesser-known candidate had the potential to still grow.
A personal note: In the fall of 1972, I was political director for the Democratic vice presidential nominee, which meant that I traveled every day with Sargent Shriver -- a truly happy experience. That was the year George McGovern won Massachusetts and Richard Nixon won the other 49 states. Prudence and cowardice kept many Democrats from even being seen publicly with the national ticket. In a losing campaign, you get to hear creative excuses -- a long-forgotten, unbreakable appointment with the family taxidermist or a favorite niece's graduation from driving school -- for why a political figure will be unable to appear on the same platform with his party's standard-bearer. You never forget, and you will always respect the fearless souls who do dare to show up and stand next to and endorse your candidate, who, every sentient person understands, will almost certainly be giving a concession speech shortly after the polls close.
Which brings us to the case of Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush's national rise and the founder of American Crossroads, an establishment Republican organization (generously underwritten by the billionaire Koch brothers) that spent $175 million on 2012 GOP campaigns. Rove's American Crossroads announced it would not risk any of its prestige or bountiful treasure to help the wounded Cochran. Barbour or Rove? A tough campaign really can reveal character.