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Originally published Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 7:18 PM

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Undecided voters may decide Mississippi runoff

The GOP runoff in Mississippi between Sen. Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel is a huge deal nationally, since conservative groups have made it a major test of their clout after setbacks elsewhere. But at its core, it’s a local contest in a state where people take their politics personally.


McClatchy Washington Bureau

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D’LO, Miss. — The closing days of the Mississippi Republican Senate campaign are a town-by-town search for elusive votes, and places such as little Simpson County matter.

This cluster of small cities and wide-open green spaces just south of Jackson was closely divided between Sen. Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel in the June 3 primary. That’s why their legions are furiously searching for the handful of votes that can make a difference.

For all the high-tech data mining and big-time spending, no one really knows how to convince the wafflers or motivate the stay-at-homes. So much is unpredictable here, and for that matter, much of the state.

How many will turn out? Who will turn out? Will Democrats show up and side with Cochran? Does the push by the tea party and stars like Sarah Palin and Ron Paul help or hurt?

On one level, this runoff is a huge deal nationally, since conservative groups have made it a major test of their clout after setbacks in other states. But the race is at its core a very local contest in a state where people take their politics personally.

Cochran, 76, has been a senator for nearly 36 years. He’s an important advocate for Mississippi in Washington, D.C., and a first-class ambassador for a state whose image seems to always need a boost.

“Thad Cochran has always been a Southern gentleman,” said Ruby Ainsworth, a Braxton housewife. “He’s never done anything to embarrass us.”

Cochran campaigns in an old-fashioned way. His red, white and blue signs gently rise up from shopping-center corners and highway exits. He rides around the state in his “Thad” bus, appearing at car dealerships, restaurants and other down-home venues.

A local official usually introduces him and ticks off all he’s done for the area. In Magee, Simpson County’s biggest city (population about 5,000), Cochran met some 50 people at a Peoples Bank conference room last week.

Brad White, a former state party chairman, recited the Cochran list: remodeling the county courthouse, improving Highway 49, helping schools. “It’s imperative we keep him where he is,” White said.

Cochran spoke for about five minutes with no notes. He talked about the value of getting along with others, occasionally jabbing at McDaniel but not naming him.

It plays well in some circles. “I trust him,” said Danny Powell, a D’Lo minister.

Yet Cochran’s approach might do little to stir turnout Tuesday from those who just voted in the primary June 3.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Magee Mayor Jimmy Clyde of the political saturation. “And typically in a second election, people don’t come out.”

McDaniel, 41, by contrast oozes energy and momentum. An army of volunteers vows to knock on as many as 8,000 doors a day. Conservative hero Rick Santorum is campaigning for him. Palin, the Republicans’ 2008 vice-presidential nominee, and Paul, the libertarian hero, have led rallies.

McDaniel’s speech to about 200 people Wednesday at the Pearl community center featured 25 minutes of calls for more liberty and economic freedom. He took on Cochran, who calls McDaniel dangerous. “Do I look dangerous to you?” the boyish McDaniel asked. The crowd roared with laughter.

Other than turning out the faithful, the biggest task for Cochran and McDaniel in these final days is to find the clusters of votes to put them over the top.

The state’s southwest corner and Ingalls Shipbuilding’s Pascagoula Shipyard get a lot of attention. The Pascagoula Metal Trades Council, which represents 6,000 workers there, has endorsed Cochran, who showed up to shake hands with workers arriving for a predawn shift last week. McDaniel has been all over the area, too, vowing to “fight for Ingalls.”

For many voters, it’s going to be a last-minute choice.

“I figure Cochran’s been there too long,” said an undecided Deanna Craft, an athletic-store clerk in Magee, “but McDaniel is so new it kind of scares me.”

In other political news Saturday:

Iowa nomination: Establishment Republicans in Iowa nominated David Young in the 3rd District, one of the nation’s most competitive congressional districts. Young, 46, a former chief of staff for Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, will face Democratic former state Sen. Staci Appel in the general election. Democrats must gain a total of 17 seats to retake the House, a challenge even House Democratic leadership says is a tall one. Young overcame an early lead by state Sen. Brad Zaun, a tea-party-backed legislator whom Democrats were already targeting for comments they characterized as extreme.

Rangel campaign: Longtime congressman Charles Rangel said he’s not overconfident he’ll prevail over his closest rival in Tuesday primary but insisted that voters would stick with a veteran lawmaker, dismissing criticism that he was too old to continue serving in Washington, D.C. “If you had a racehorse that won 43 races, brings in the money, but the horse is old and experienced and knows the track — what would you do?” Rangel, 84, asked at a Washington Heights storefront church, where he was endorsed by about a dozen Spanish-speaking ministers. “Would you send him to the glue factory? Hell, no.”

A NY1/Siena College poll released Thursday put Rangel, a 22-term New York Democrat, up 13 points over his closest challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat. In 2012, Rangel beat Espaillat by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Espaillat dismissed the poll results and told a campaign rally: “This is a coalition of victory that is completely convinced that Washington is broken and that at the center of that dysfunction is a gentleman called Charles Rangel.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.



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