I was wrong. I thought for sure the NRSC and Mississippi’s GOP establishment would back off of McDaniel given that he’s the favorite in the runoff. Cochran might keep campaigning, I figured, but it would be a strictly positive campaign for the next few weeks, probably with no attack on McDaniel harsher than the fact that he’s inexperienced. At a minimum, they’d stay away from blaming him for that nasty harassment of Cochran’s wife inside her nursing home. Why frag a guy whom you’ll probably be fighting behind next month?

As I say, I was wrong.

After months of milquetoast statements and letting surrogates do any campaign trash talking, incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran went on the offensive in Hattiesburg on Tuesday, calling his opponent Chris McDaniel “an extremist” who would hurt Mississippi with indiscriminate cuts to federal spending…

“He said he wouldn’t even vote for disaster assistance for Mississippi,” Cochran said, referring to McDaniel statements early in the race where he demurred on whether he would have supported federal Katrina relief Cochran helped secure. McDaniel later clarified he would have supported the relief spending. One of the Cochran campaign’s earliest ads attempted to make hay over McDaniel’s comments…

“(McDaniel) is trying to indict that kind of power and influence in Washington?” Cochran said. “It would be dangerous to have somebody like him elected.”…

“It’s bizarre people got arrested doing things at the nursing home where my wife is,” Cochran said, “and the jail — people in there after midnight — and these are people working for him and his candidacy? What in the world were they doing up there? I don’t think anybody knows all the answers yet. How many people were involved? What were they up to? I’m just raising the question. I don’t have the answers. But it sure is bizarre, isn’t it? I mean, think about it.”

This is the “jail” incident he mentions, which doesn’t involve a jail, but then that’s not the first time he’s been confused on the trail:

Cochran was asked about the Affordable Care Act, which is wildly unpopular among Mississippi Republicans. He responded, “I think we need to monitor any federal programs that provide services and assistance to people who need help, and this is an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible, and affordable.”

Everyone understand the significance of this? Even if Cochran ends up losing the runoff, as seems probable given the past week’s polls, he’s still a state institution. His name-recognition is sky high after 35 years in office; all but the most hardcore McDaniel fans will have sympathy for him if he gets beat in a few weeks. To put rhetoric about “dangerous extremists” in his own mouth at this point of the game, knowing that Democrats will bludgeon McDaniel with that soundbite in the general election, amounts to a quasi-endorsement of the Democrat. (In fact, as Matt Lewis rightly notes, this rhetoric is aimed squarely at Democratic and independent voters whom Cochran’s trying to lure into voting in the runoff.) The challenger is unfit for office, Cochran’s essentially saying, in which case logically you’re better off with the alternative. It’s a kamikaze action by establishment Republicans and the NRSC, who’ve evidently decided that it’s more important to their prerogatives to beat the tea partier than it is to beat the left. Which isn’t a crazy conclusion: If you make it impossible for tea-party candidates to win a general election, even at the expense of electing a Democrat instead, eventually some grassroots conservatives will give up and come back to supporting establishment candidates purely in the interest of putting Republicans back in power again. It’s tea partiers who are forever under suspicion of going third-party and handing seats to Democrats, but that’s basically what Cochran’s doing here. Either he wins the runoff or he prefers to see the Democrat win the general. After all, having concluded that McDaniel’s “dangerous,” realistically he can’t turn around and endorse him after the runoff, right?

This is going to keep happening until grassroots righties fight fire with fire and decide that some seats are worth losing in the name of making a point. And if/when you do and Beltway Republicans complain, tell them you learned that strategy from Thad Cochran.