This weekend saw the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. Tuesday – and a statewide election in Mississippi – brings to close another chapter in what may be the longest saga in Republican politics: rival party factions at war.

At stake in the Magnolia State is the immediate future of Sen. Thad Cochran, age 76 and a fixture in Mississippi congressional politics since the Watergate era (beginning in 1973, three terms in the U.S. House followed by six terms in the U.S. Senate). Cochran lost his party’s June 3 primary by 0.5% to State Sen. Chris McDaniel – a difference of only 1,400 votes. As neither candidate cracked 50%, Tuesday’s runoff will settle matters.

This doesn’t mean an end to Republicans’ 2014 Dixie mini-dramas. Alabama and North Carolina will hold House runoffs on July 15; Georgia will hold a Senate runoff on July 22. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander – like Cochran, an established D.C. presence long targeted by Tea Party activists – faces a primary vote on Aug. 7.

That said, Mississippi hasn’t lacked for entertainment. And that includes:

  1. QB Launches a “Hail Mary”. You’re the Cochran campaign, it’s late in the fourth quarter and you know that one score might decide the, as the polls suggests (depending in who’s doing the asking, it’s a toss-up or McDaniel enjoys a leader). So what pay to call? Simple: put the ball in Bret Favre’s hands. Favre, the Mississippi native and legendary NFL passer, appeared in a 30-second TV ad praising the incumbent senator. Not that the McDaniel campaign hasn’t tried to interject celebrity – political and otherwise – into the three-week span between primary and runoff. Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul all found their way to Mississippi. So, too, did game-show host Chuck Woolery and Josh Duggar, the eldest sibling in reality-TV’s 19 Kids and Counting and director of the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council. And here Louisiana and “Duck Dynasty” thought it had cornered the Gulf Coast market on the intersection of television and congressional politics.
  2. Reverse Engineering. To survive the Republican primary, Cochran is counting on something as commonplace in summertime Mississippi elections as snowstorm in Biloxi: non-Republican voters rushing to his defense. Under state rules, the runoff is open not only to Republicans, but Mississippians who didn’t vote in the earlier primary or didn’t cast their vote for a Democrat. That has the Cochran scrambling for black votes (36% of the state’s 2012 electorate, but only 2% of the same year’s GOP primary) and organized labor. That, in turn, has McDaniel supporters crying foul over allegations of vote-buying and “walking-around money” – and what-it-takes maneuvering by a political operative who goes by the nickname “Scooby Doo”.
  3. Constituent Affairs.  Cochran’s counting on one other factor to save his seat: familiarity in the form of federal dollars sent to Mississippi. Thus he’s reminding voters of Hurricane Katrina relief and appearing in the likes of Pascagoula, home of defense-contracting Ingalls Shipbuilding. McDaniel’s approach differs this way: he wants to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution – while making it clear that he doesn’t oppose federal defense and education making its way south. Maybe it’s time for Cochran to trot out Don Draper’s “nostalgia” pitch.
  4. Has Old-School Charm Lost Its Charm? Here’s one other way to look at the race: different generations, different styles. Cochran, who was an Ole Miss cheerleader alongside Trent Lott back in the late 1950’s (don’t laugh – the campus politics required to get elected head cheerleader was good training for a future senator), cut his political teeth by running Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential run in Mississippi. He’s not just a product of a different time – his is a more genteel approach to political salesmanship. Not that McDaniel is an angry younger man (he turns 42 this week). But as a Tea Party favorite now in the national spotlight, he’s the tip of a spear directed at two forms of establishment – incumbent members of Congress and federal spending practices. Simply put: do Mississippi voters want to stick with the relaxed tried and true; or, are they mad enough to put an end to the era of the “southern gentleman” – the Mississippi version, at least.

Thus Tuesday’s runoff serves as a referendum on the Magnolia way of doing things. Will it be continuing with a long tradition of the state’s congressional delegation manning a federal money pipeline (a tradition that includes Cochran, Lott, John Stennis, Jamie Whitten and James Eastland)? Or, does voter frustration with Washington make contempt a more powerful motivator than constituent rewards?

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen

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