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Mississippi Republicans Wait for Cochran’s Decision

To fund or not to fund? That is the question among Republican pols in Mississippi.

The Deep South represents fertile territory for the tea party, which has advocated for stringent spending cuts on Capitol Hill. But Mississippi is different from its Southern neighbors: It tops national poverty rankings and has long depended on federal funds.

So the most urgent question in Mississippi politics is whether Sen. Thad Cochran will retire in 2014. (He’s hasn’t said yet.) For decades, the six-term Republican has leveraged his seniority to bring home federal dollars. As a result, some Mississippi Republicans dread a delegation without Cochran’s clout — while others want him to get out so they can move up.

The senator also represents the reigning conundrum in state politics. Looking forward, Mississippi Republicans will have to confront the tension between an increasingly conservative national party and the delegation’s capacity to leverage its seniority to send federal dollars home.

“Yes, we’re a conservative state, but the tea party has not been able to get any traction in Mississippi,” said GOP lobbyist Hayes Dent in a comment echoed by other state Republicans.

Dent and others say they want Cochran to return for another term, which will give the Magnolia State’s young delegation time to move up the House and Senate ranks. In 2007, Sen. Roger Wicker was appointed to succeed Trent Lott after the former senator abruptly retired. Wicker won his first full term last year.

Whenever Cochran or Wicker retires, the first open-seat Senate race since 1988 will follow. Three Republicans and one Democrat represent Mississippi in the House, and all three GOP members were elected in the past five years.

Republicans CQ Roll Call interviewed repeated three names as potential successors in the Senate: Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, state Auditor Stacey E. Pickering and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Others looked to the House delegation, with an eye on three-term Rep. Gregg Harper.

But some conservatives are not waiting for Cochran to retire. A small draft movement has formed around state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is aligned with the tea party, to challenge Cochran if he runs for re-election in 2014.

McDaniel confirmed his interest in challenging Cochran in a Wednesday phone interview with CQ Roll Call. He said “no firm decision has been made one way or the other.”

Some Republican insiders said Cochran would clobber McDaniel if he challenged him.

“I think he will get his head handed to him, and that will be what he deserves,” Republican lobbyist Henry Barbour said of McDaniel’s potential Senate run. “[But] it’s a free country.”

Republicans have also said McDaniel could run for the House, perhaps in a primary against Rep. Steven M. Palazzo.

Like the Senate race, McDaniel says he is undecided about the House. The Club for Growth recently named Palazzo as one of its top targets for 2014, but the conservative group has yet to endorse a challenger.

For Democrats, there is both hope and concern on the horizon. Mississippi Democratic Chairman Rickey Cole is counting on the national GOP to overreach and put the state’s seats in play.

“We have the capacity to be compete in any of our [House] districts if the right circumstances align themselves,” he said.

Cole defines these circumstances as open-seat races and contests with “vulnerable” incumbents who vote to cut federal aid to curry favor with the tea party. He named Democrats such as former Rep. Travis Childers and Mississippi Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a distant cousin of Elvis Presley, as potential House candidates. Cole also suggested they could run statewide.

Republicans are not impressed with their opposition’s bench. And while Cole talks up his party’s future offense, the state’s lone House Democrat could be in trouble in a few years.

The dean of the delegation, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, has never seen results below 55 percent in his 11 House races. Cole declined to entertain the idea of a successor for Thompson, describing the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee as “is in his prime” as a legislator.

But at least one Republican strategist pointed to Thompson’s vulnerability down the line.

Earlier this year, a Supreme Court ruling struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act that protects some majority-minority districts, such as Thompson’s in western Mississippi. A Republican-dominated state legislature could drastically redraw his seat after the 2020 census, spreading the strongest pockets of Democratic voters around the state.

But even some Mississippi Republicans cast doubt on this scenario. “That sounds good, but I can’t imagine that would happen,” countered a GOP operative. “We’re not going to have four white congressmen.”

Farm Team is a weekly state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.

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