When Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran filed papers to run for another term, the snowy-haired Republican listed the address of his campaign as a P.O. box in Tupelo, a town best known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley and a hub of the state’s conservative, northeast corner.
But the focal point of Cochran’s reelection effort might be more accurately placed in an office tower nearly 200 miles away, at a building in downtown Jackson — 210 E. Capitol St. is the address — where a pair of brothers, in suites separated by just one floor, work overtime to defend Mississippi’s elder statesman.
They are Henry and Austin Barbour, the nephews of Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor who is himself an integral part of the sophisticated political operation seeking to quash Cochran’s primary opponent from the GOP’s right flank.
In all the Republican-on-Republican primary battles that have unfolded over the last few cycles, there’s no more vivid example of establishment forces racing to the aid of an embattled legislator than the Barbour-backed rescue operation under way in Mississippi, a tradition-bound place where seniority has long been king.
Though the attempted turnaround involves a constellation of operatives and donors who are not blood relatives, the Barbour family is at the center of the whole effort. Austin, 38, is a senior strategist for Cochran’s campaign. Henry, a 49-year-old member of the Republican National Committee, leads the pro-Cochran Mississippi Conservatives PAC. The outside group has already spent nearly $400,000 so far going after Cochran’s challenger in the June 3 primary, state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
In their day jobs, both Barbour brothers lead multistate lobbying firms based in Jackson. In the Senate race, the brothers operate on opposite sides of the wall separating hard- and soft-money political groups. They say they do not discuss the campaign with each other — not an unfamiliar experience after the 2012 Republican primaries, when Austin was an adviser to Mitt Romney and Henry an early supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Looming over everything is Haley Barbour, who remains a Godfather-like figure in state politics three years after leaving office. He presides over an expansive network of closely linked operatives and a channel of major-donor money that runs from K Street to downtown Jackson and through national groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Haley Barbour has raised money for both the Cochran campaign and the super PAC, and the campaign expects him to return to the stump later in the race. Many of Cochran’s chief benefactors and advisers are alumni of Barbour’s campaigns and administration, including the senator’s pollster, TV admaker and finance chairman.
Together, they make up an informal Committee to Re-Elect the Senior Senator — a group bound together by reverence for the grand old men of the state GOP and contempt for what they view as an opportunistic challenger who lacks respect for the way Mississippi politics is practiced. (Several Cochran and Barbour boosters, without prompting, voiced offense at McDaniel’s skeptical comments about Hurricane Katrina aid in a POLITICO interview last month.)
Reached by phone, Haley Barbour shrugged at the notion that Cochran is the beneficiary of a world-class political operation built primarily by Barbour himself. The senator’s opponent, Barbour said, “will find that Thad Cochran is a much stronger political figure than the Barbour family.”
“Thad Cochran, Trent Lott and I have been allies, worked together for Mississippi for 40 years,” Barbour said, referring to the former Senate majority leader who also supports Cochran. “I got involved helping Thad when I was a law student. I chaired his 1978 Senate campaign when I was a lawyer in Yazoo City.”
Henry Barbour, who lives in Yazoo City with his family, said the all-hands-on-deck response to Cochran’s challenge reflected the deep goodwill the state feels toward the senator. Mississippians who admire Cochran were determined to step up, he said, including with tactics that the genteel Cochran might hesitate to employ.
“Mississippi has a long history of having honorable men like Sen. Cochran represent us in Washington,” he said. “I also thought Sen. Cochran is such a gentleman that he would not be inclined to ever talk about his opponent. It seemed important that we put together an independent group that would expose Chris McDaniel’s record.”
There’s a certain irony in Haley Barbour’s role in 2014. Mississippians of a certain age will remember that Barbour began his political career with his own, unsuccessful attempt to take down a state political icon: the late Democratic Sen. John Stennis. Barbour’s slogan: “A Senator for the ’80s, not a Senator in his 80s.”
Barbour and his extended political family are now on the opposite end of a generational fight as they seek to help a longtime political ally. Haley Barbour said his wife was Cochran’s “first paid employee in his first campaign” for Congress in the early 1970s; when Barbour ran for governor three decades later, in 2003, Cochran gave him a critical boost with an ad calling Barbour a “Mississippi success story.” (“It popped Haley into the lead,” one veteran of the race recalled.)
In language unthinkable in the politics of 2014, Cochran spoke straight to the camera to hail Barbour’s prowess as a D.C. lobbyist.
“He built the nation’s No. 1 lobbying firm, representing businesses that employ millions of Americans and helping fund universities and hospitals in Mississippi,” Cochran said in the ad. “I’m proud of Haley, and you will be, too.”
If Barbour owes Cochran something of a debt for that, he and his cohort are repaying it now with interest.