By Kyle Veazey

Haley Barbour is the most popular modern Mississippi politician. His portly stature and marble-mouthed drawl were already something out of central casting for a Mississippi governor when elected in 2003; his performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina two years later elevated his status even more.

Yet in the late spring of 2014, just two years after leaving office, he and his allies in the state's Republican establishment are under siege.

Almost to a person, they're behind the re-election bid of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. But the same can't be said about Mississippi writ large. In the June 3 primary, Chris McDaniel, the tea party-backed state senator, edged Cochran by about 1,500 votes. But since McDaniel fell just shy of 50 percent of the votes, a runoff is necessary. It'll be held June 24.

It's a three-week overtime for the battle that has roiled the Mississippi spring, just as the tea party's perceived viability nationwide has surged in the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss in Virginia. In Mississippi, it's McDaniel's populist campaign versus Cochran and the state GOP establishment, which is all-in against a tea party movement it perceives as outsiders trying to "get a scalp," in Barbour's words.

"Let's not kid ourselves: These are out-of-state special interest groups who don't care anything about Mississippi," Barbour said. But regardless of what has prompted it, Mississippi's Republicans are divided. Contrasting Cochran and McDaniel signs dot subdivisions and highways. (Cochran's sign simply reads "Thad," a nod to his name recognition.) There's angst, too: Some of those signs urge voters to "Retire Cochran." The national media have arrived, with major pieces in such places as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

For McDaniel, the national endorsements have arrived, too: conservative talker Sean Hannity, former Sen. Rick Santorum and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, to mention a few. Palin even did a rally for McDaniel in the days ahead of the primary. But the home-state endorsements have been almost exclusively for Cochran. The Barbours (though not Jeppie, Haley's brother) have thrown in with Cochran. So have Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Same for Rep. Roger Wicker and Rep. Gregg Harper, who are actively campaigning day-in, day-out for Cochran _ and are faced with the awkwardness of having to work with McDaniel in Washington should their cause fail.

The race has turned on its head another once-reliable old saw in Mississippi politics, too: While Mississippians may have a distrust of the federal government, they don't mind receiving its largesse. Cochran backers have touted how his seniority has steered federal dollars to the poorest state in the union.

Marty Wiseman, the former director of a political think tank at Mississippi State University and a go-to quote machine for assessments of the state's political scene, called Cochran" the most unbeatable politician in Mississippi" in December, according to The Associated Press.

Cochran's supporters have railed against the outside money that has been spent on the race _ some $8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the majority either for McDaniel or against Cochran.

"It's easy to throw accusations when you don't want to stick to issues," said Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, a Georgia-based group that has spent about $700,000 to support McDaniel.

Among her criticisms: Cochran has continually voted to increase the federal debt ceiling.

"The people in Mississippi that we've been working with are volunteers from Mississippi," she said. "They invited us into Mississippi to help them."

Martin's group was especially active in DeSoto County, where McDaniel received 63 percent of the vote.

"It was not what I'd put in quotations 'tea party' people," said DeSoto County Republican Party Chairman Kevin Blackwell, of McDaniel's voters. "They were young and old, who I've talked to who."

McDaniel, 42, an attorney from the southeast Mississippi town of Ellisville and a two-term state senator, fits the outsider's bill. He sometimes eschews suits and ties in favor of an untucked button-up shirt and a choker necklace. He's claimed a populist appeal and has stoked anti-Obama fires.

"This is a peek back to a better time," McDaniel said in a recent Washington Post profile, where a reporter followed him through supporters at the Tate County Fair. "I'm a Jeffersonian and a Reaganite, and I like to remember how good things once were."

Cochran, 76, was first elected to Congress in 1972 _ and that just might be his biggest liability.

"People are upset with Washington _ rightly so _ and they want to vote against Washington," said Henry Barbour, the nephew of the former governor who operates a pro-Cochran super PAC that has received money from the likes of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to Politico. "McDaniel panders to them, tells them what they want to hear, and it sounds good, and you've got $5 million in advertising coming in that portrays Thad as things he is not."

(And there's another actor in the wings, the runoff results dramatically changing his role. Travis Childers, conservative Democrat and former congressman, easily won his party's primary. Though hard to imagine a Democrat in 2014 winning a statewide office in Mississippi, a McDaniel win, with the potential to make previously GOP centrist voters free agents, could at least make the annual political speaking at the Neshoba County Fair in July more interesting.)

(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal