ACKERMAN, Miss — Up in Washington, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is regarded as a reliable conservative.
In Mississippi, angry Republicans brand him a liberal.
As Cochran fights to win renomination in a June 24 runoff against a tea-party challenger, the race is hinging on a brutal battle over whether hes sufficiently conservative.
Challenger Chris McDaniel, as well as groups based outside Mississippi, are pounding away at the notion Cochran shares the political philosophy of President Barack Obama.
In Washington, he votes with the liberals on spending, on judges, even on funding Obamacare, charges an ad by the conservative Club for Growth Action. The group has made what it calls a large, six-figure buy to run the spot on state television.
On the campaign trail, McDaniel hammers away at the same theme. For 42 years Sen. Cochran has not been the voice of conservative Mississippi, McDaniel told a crowd at Harveys Restaurant in this small town near the Alabama border.
Cochran seems incredulous when discussing such charges. Its up to them to choose who they want to vote for, he said of his critics. If they think I havent voted conservative enough pick out somebody who has and vote for them.
Cut through the noise and the the question is not so much whether Cochran is conservative, but whether hes in tune with this states Republicans in one of the nations most conservative states.
Numbers tell different stories. The American Conservative Union gives him a 78.9 lifetime rating, meaning he has voted their way roughly four out of five times since he came to the Senate in 1979.
But hes averaged 63 since Obama took office in 2009.
Cochrans recent scores have been abysmal, said Dan Schneider, ACU executive director. Its not just one vote, its a pattern, he said, with Cochrans fiscal votes topping the list of outrages.
The ACUs political arm endorsed McDaniel in the June 24 Senate runoff election.
Even a 63, though, is well above anything anyone would call liberal -- the Democratic conservative average last year was 6.78.
Americans for Democratic Action, which tracks liberal voting, gave Cochran a 20 percent liberal quotient in 2012, its most recent rating.
Cochran explained hes operated as best he can in a Senate where getting it all is impossible. He defended his spending decisions as crucial to his impoverished state, and makes his defense of that spending the linchpin of his campaign.
To many fed up with Washington, such talk is little more than excuse-making.
Im looking at this massive debt, and Cochran voted to increase the debt, said Dannie Reed, an Ackerman activist. It seems like hes not even trying to cut the budget.
McDaniel relishes igniting that spark.
Its extreme that he would pander to liberal Democrats in a Republican primary because he knows he cannot count on the votes of conservatives, McDaniel told supporters in Starkville last week.
Cochran and his backers scoff at such talk.
Conservative leaders in Mississippi are standing beside Sen. Cochran, said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. He ticked off a long list, including Gov. Phil Bryant and former Gov. Haley Barbour.
But to staunch conservatives, Cochrans record has two big glitches.
One involves his long ago votes on judges. Cochran in 1993 and 1994 voted to confirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, President Clintons Supreme Court nominees. He was hardly alone _ Ginsburg got 96 votes and Breyer, 87.
Back then, it was still Senate tradition that absent exceptional circumstances, a president is entitled to his team. Cochran did vote against both Obama Supreme Court nominees.
His opponents other complaint involve recent spending and debt votes.
Cochran backed the 2011 deal that raised the debt ceiling and the 2013 pact to end the government shutdown. In December, he opposed the two-year budget compromise, which lifted some spending restrictions, but a month later voted, along with many other Republicans, for a current year spending plan that adhered to those levels.
Republican Party leaders argue that in each instance they won concessions. The 2011 agreement cut anticipated spending $917 billion over 10 years, and triggered automatic spending cuts, or sequester, if a special congressional committee could not agree on further reductions. The plan got 74 votes.
To end last years shutdown, Republicans had demanded an end to the Affordable Care Act. They got a small concession, that the government confirm eligibility of those getting federal aid under the health care law.
Schneider thought Cochrans seeming moderation evolved because of his status as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has a big role in crafting federal spending plans. If Cochran returns to the Senate next year, and Republicans control the Senate, hes likely to chair the committee.
Cochran is unapologetic about his fiscal record. His campaign is a daily tour of projects whose funding he helped secure. When asked about his debt ceiling votes, he and his backers say matter of factly that he did the best he could.
Just look at the record, and youll see what hes done for this state, said State Rep. Rita Martinson, a Madison Republican.
Few dispute that. But they also see all that debt, and all that gridlock, and are in no mood for nuances.
I like small government, said Phyllis Guysinger, a Hattiesburg retiree, and I dont like that hes voted for things I cant support.