GOP Primary: Despite Mississippi Mudslinging, Tea Party Has a Good Shot
Policy + Politics

GOP Primary: Despite Mississippi Mudslinging, Tea Party Has a Good Shot

REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

The three-car political pileup in Mississippi Tuesday night may be as good as it gets for the Tea Party this year.

After weeks of ugly primary campaigning and unprecedented spending by both sides, veteran Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel, appeared deadlocked in the Senate GOP primary vote and headed for a bruising runoff in three weeks.

The Tea Party and their conservative allies have been desperate to claim at least one trophy in their high-profile efforts to supplant more establishment Republicans. From the start, Cochran, 76, who has served in Congress for four decades, appeared to be the most vulnerable incumbent.

If the unofficial primary vote returns hold up, McDaniel will finish about a percentage point ahead of Cochran – but neither man will have the 50 percent majority necessary to win outright. 

Related: Scandal Surrounds Hard-Fought GOP Primary in Mississippi 

With 99.5 percent of precincts reporting, McDaniel led Cochran, 49.6 percent to 48 percent for Cochran, while a little known candidate named Thomas Carey picked up  1.6 percent  -- just enough to deny Cochran or McDaniel an outright victory.

Cochran’s highly disappointing showing will no doubt provide McDaniel and his troops with additional mojo heading into a June 24 runoff – and indeed, the conservative Club for Growth on Wednesday morning urged Cochran to surrender to  spare the party additional infighting.

“Senator Cochran has had five decades in Washington and it’s clear that six more years of the same won’t have any impact on the direction of our country. He should do the honorable thing and decline to contest the runoff,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement.

Should he choose to persist, the Club for Growth PAC and conservatives throughout Mississippi will vigorously pursue this race to its conclusion, and we will look forward to the election of Senator Chris McDaniel,” Chocola added.

Chocola’s call for Cochran to raise the white flag of surrender underscores the Tea Party’s eagerness to score at least one big primary season success to justify all the money and effort they have expended.

Related: Meet Thad Cochran, an Endangered Senate Republican

The Club for Growth, the Senate Conservative Fund and other conservative groups spent a total of more than $5 million for McDaniel, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis – compared with $2.8 million from groups supporting Cochran. And they will have to spend plenty more before the runoff, if the unofficial results hold up.

In a statement issued early Wednesday morning, the National Republican Senate Committee reaffirmed its support for Cochran, declaring, “We look forward to him emerging victorious in the runoff.”

For the most part, this has been a mediocre primary season for the Tea Party – and a far cry from its glory days when it helped engineer the Republican takeover of the House in 2010. Following that victory, the Tea Party placed enormous pressure on House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders during sensitive negotiations with the Obama administration that nearly forced a first ever default on U.S. debt in 2011 and produced a government shutdown last fall.  

In recent months, more establishment Republicans have enjoyed a resurgence in influence as the Tea Party badly overreached by trying to topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and  Sen. John Cornyn of Texas – the top two Republicans in the Senate.

Although McConnell and Cornyn both have impeccable conservative credentials, they were portrayed by their conservative critics as Washington deal makers who were willing to raise the debt ceiling or broker deals with President Obama not in keeping with conservative fiscal principles.

Cornyn easily defeated a handful of conservative challengers in March while McConnell crushed Republican businessman Matt Bevin in the Kentucky GOP primary late last month.

The Tea Party managed to save face after one of its own – Republican Ben Sasse – won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in Nebraska May 13. Then Sen. Ted Cruz and his Tea party allies in Texas exalted after helping to bump off Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a moderate, and Republican Rep. Ralph Hall, a 91-year-old World War II veteran, in a primary runoff election a week ago.

Still, the Tea Party has had no success until now in defeating incumbent Senate Republicans – and they aren’t likely to do any better in upcoming primaries for seats held by GOP Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The Mississippi primary was the marquee battle of the day, but primaries were held in seven other states – including Iowa, California, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana, Alabama and New Mexico.

Related: New Tidal Wave of Money Could Decide Senate Races

If McDaniel, 41, a lawyer and one time radio talk show host, can upset the amiable, snow-thatched Cochran, Tea Party adherents could cite that as a vindication for their relentless drive to push their party further to the right and to impose ideological purity.  

The Cochran Legacy
Cochran spent much of his 42-year career in the House and Senate where he steered billions of federal dollars and projects to his home state. But being the master of pork barrel spending – once a high distinction in Washington -- has gone out of fashion as both parties have focused increasingly on the problems of runaway spending and a $17 trillion federal debt.    

McDaniel appeared to be making headway with his calls for fiscal austerity and vows to wean Mississippi – one of the poorest states in the union – off of its heavy reliance on federal largesse. He espoused themes of limited government on the campaign trail, where -- according to media reports -- he called Mississippi a “welfare state” and vowed to get government off people’s back.

That was before the primary campaign exploded into a vicious mudslinging affair two weeks ago that occurred after a local political activist and blogger, Clayton Kelly, was arrested on charges that he slipped into a Madison, Miss., nursing home to take a picture of Cochran’s wife – who suffers from progressive dementia – without her permission.

The photo was used for a video Kelly published on his blog that appeared to be part of an effort to spread rumors that Cochran had been carrying on an affair with a long-time Senate aide, according to Business Insider.

Cochran closed out his campaign by promising voters that if he’s re-elected again he will continue to do what he has done for decades in Washington: fighting to make sure that Mississippi gets its “fair share” of the federal pie.

With the outcome of the primary election still in doubt last night, McDaniel told his supporters: “This is a historic moment in this state’s history. And because of your hard work, because of your dedication, we sit here tonight leading a 42-year incumbent.”

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