Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran will not debate challenger Chris McDaniel before their Republican runoff election later this month, a spokesman for the six-term senator told Newsmax on Thursday.
"There's no precedent for debates during runoff elections in Mississippi," Jordan Russell, the campaign's communications director, said in an interview. "We don't anticipate Sen. Cochran debating Mr. McDaniel."
Russell's comments did not sit well with Noel Fritsch, a McDaniel campaign spokesman.
"Mississippians deserve a real debate about the future rather than tired attacks from Thad Cochran's paid spokesman," Fritsch told Newsmax in an email. "Hopefully, Thad will come back to Mississippi between now and the election so Mississippians get to hear their senator debate the issues."
But Cochran's decision is fine with a key supporter, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
"Thad Cochran has a job. He's in the U.S. Senate," he said in an interview. Barbour cautioned that he was speaking for himself, not as a member of the Mississippi Conservatives, the super PAC that spent $120,000 last month on ads supporting the incumbent. "When he's at home on the weekends, he needs to be campaigning."
The debate issue arose Tuesday night while the votes were being counted in the bitterly contested primary battle, which McDaniel won by just over 1,300 votes.
He finished with 155,040 votes, or 49.5 percent, to Cochran's 153,654, or 49 percent. A little-known third candidate, real estate agent Thomas Carey, won 4,789 votes, or 1.5 percent.
Neither top candidate reached the required 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that night that if the race went to a runoff, "we will expect a vigorous debate about the future of our country over the next three weeks and we will continue to fully support Thad Cochran."
The next day, Jenny Beth Martin, who heads the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, told Newsmax that she would invite both candidates to a debate before their June 24 runoff.
The super PAC was among many outside groups that poured more than $8.4 million into the race on both sides. The organization backed McDaniel.
"We are going to send invitations to the candidates to actually have that vigorous debate," Martin said.
"There has not been a debate at all in this election cycle in Mississippi."
In the primary, Cochran, 76, refused to debate McDaniel, 41, who has been in the state Senate since 2008. He also is a lawyer and former radio talk-show host.
The runoff winner faces Democrat Travis Childers and the Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara in the Nov. 4 general election. The last time Mississippi chose a Democratic senator was in 1982.
Since 1988, 13 Republican runoffs have occurred for governor or Senate in Mississippi, the website fivethirtyeight.com
reports. The site cited data from the Federal Election Commission and Congressional Quarterly.
Russell acknowledged that the McDaniel's win has turned Cochran — who has spent 42 years in the Senate and was the first Republican to be elected statewide since Reconstruction — into the underdog.
He blamed it primarily on money from outside groups. Cochran's campaign spent $3 million, and McDaniel's group put up $1 million in the campaign.
"Sen. Cochran has taken a $5 million punch from out-of-state groups that are trying to buy our Senate seat — and you can't expect that much money pouring in from outside the state distorting Sen. Cochran's record to not take a toll. That's why it was a closely fought election.
"We're confident that people in Mississippi are rallying to Sen. Cochran's side, and we're going to work our strategy and have a good day on June 24th," he said.
With the issue debate issue essentially settled, both candidates turned their attention to the runoff. Republican strategists have said that Cochran, who ran on a platform of bringing federal dollars to the state, must lure those voters who sat out the primary race.
Russell declined to outline Cochran's approach.
"The object of the game is to get more votes that the other guy, and we're going to go do that," he told Newsmax. "I'm not going to game out our exact strategy for doing that.
"We have a belief that Mississippians are rallying around Sen. Cochran. There's a lot of people — [who] for whatever reason — did not take the race seriously enough and did not come out and vote. I think they will come out the next time around.
"We know how to reach those voters, and I think Mississippians will rally around Sen. Cochran," Russell said.
He added that he was not surprised that a number of voters did not vote in the primary, even though it was a record turnout for a primary, and would not speculate on why some residents stayed home.
"I just think that there were some voters out there who just didn't think the race was going to be that close," he said. "They have another opportunity to vote.
"There's always people who didn't vote the first time around, and they want to vote the second time around. We're going to go get them. We're going to go find our voters."
Noting that 153,654 Mississippians voted for Cochran, Russell vowed "we're going to make sure those people know to go back to the polls again on June 24th."
Fritsch declined to disclose what McDaniel's methodology would be heading into the runoff.
Barbour, 66, who served in the Statehouse from 2004 to 2012, said it was critical that Cochran focus on policy issues that most affect residents of the Magnolia State.
"He has to get the campaign back on the policy issues and away from the issues that have been a huge distraction," he told Newsmax. "This will be able to distinguish between the candidates on the issues."
Russell noted that several incidents involving McDaniel staffers and supporters have raised questions about the state senator's credibility.
During the primary, Clayton Kelly — a local blogger and McDaniel supporter — allegedly sneaked into a nursing home
to take a picture of Cochran's wife, Rose, who has been suffering from dementia for more than a decade.
Kelly posted the photo on his blog as part of a video that allegedly sought to heighten rumors of an affair between Cochran and his longtime executive assistant.
The three men arrested in the incident include Mississippi Tea Party Vice Chairman Mark Mayfield, who has extensive ties to McDaniel. The state senator said that neither he nor his campaign knew of the matter until it had occurred.
In addition, a McDaniel campaign staffer and two other supporters were cleared Thursday of breaking any laws when they were found in the Hinds County Courthouse early Wednesday.
They had apparently entered through a side door that was "either propped open or was malfunctioning at the time of entry," the Hinds County Sheriff's Department said in a statement, The Clarion-Ledger reports.
The department closed its investigation.
"Chris McDaniel's campaign can't seem to stay out of the wrong side of the doors," Russell charged to Newsmax.
Fritsch declined to specifically respond to Russell's allegations.
"It's disappointing he has to hide behind these outrageous comments," he said in the email.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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