GOP Mississippi Run-Off Race Takes Ugly New Turn
Policy + Politics

GOP Mississippi Run-Off Race Takes Ugly New Turn

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and a spokesperson for the Club for Growth on Thursday provided a taste of the nastiness and intensity that are likely to mark the next round of Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary contest.

Barbour, a chief supporter of veteran Sen. Thad Cochran’s uphill reelection effort, took a potshot at Club for Growth and the other outside groups vigorously backing challenger Chris McDaniel, a two-term state senator and Tea Party champion.

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

“We are not going to let a bunch of people from Washington or New York dictate who represents Mississippi in the U.S. Senate,” Barbour declared in an interview with ABC News.

That prompted a rejoinder from Barney Keller, the Club for Growth spokesperson, who pointed out that Barbour – a former chair of the Republican National Committee – has lobbied for years in Washington. 

“Haley Barbour is supposed to be all powerful,” said Keller in a statement. “But he’s losing a race in his own backyard, and his influence business in Washington will take a big hit when he no longer has a Mississippi senator in his back pocket.”

With neither Cochran nor McDaniel able to garner 50 percent of the votes cast on Tuesday in this bitterly fought contest, the two men are facing a runoff June 24. It will be the Tea Party’s last opportunity to bump off an incumbent Republican senator this year in a campaign that has cleaved largely along ideological and generational lines.

Related: Meet Thad Cochran, an Endangered Senate Republican

Cochran, 76, a six-term member of the Senate whose claim to fame was steering billions of dollars in federal projects and assistance to his economically depressed state, ran a lackluster and poorly focused campaign. He missed an excellent opportunity to fend off a Tea Party challenger, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) were able to do.

McDaniel, 41, a lawyer and former conservative radio host, ran a tough, well-financed campaign that portrayed Cochran as out of touch with a new era of conservatives and wedded to Washington’s old traditions of pork barrel spending that have helped drive up the debt.

McDaniel won Tuesday’s primary by a sliver, 49.5 percent to Cochran’s 49 percent. The victory instantly catapulted McDaniel to front-runner status in the run off and energized an army of national Tea Party groups.

Now, that status presents risks as well as benefits, because Barbour and other Mississippi establishment Republicans have their long knives out to defeat McDaniel. Some Democrats reportedly are also privately cheering for McDaniel: They think he will make a far weaker candidate in the November general election.

The New York Times reported Thursday that some Democrats think McDaniel would carry substantial political baggage into a general election campaign – not unlike the problem that some Tea Party candidates had in waging past Senate general election campaigns in Delaware, Indiana and Missouri -- where Democratic women and minorities would have concerns.

McDaniel, a two-term state senator, got into trouble late in the campaign when a Tea Party blogger who backed the McDaniel campaign was arrested after illegally entering a Mississippi nursing home and photographing Cochran’s ailing wife, who suffers from progressive dementia. The photo was used as part of a rumormongering campaign that Cochran had been carrying on an affair with a Senate staffer for years.

McDaniel called the nursing home incident “reprehensible” and insisted, “Our campaign had absolutely nothing to do with it.” He also criticized Cochran for dragging his heels in filing a complaint.

According to The Times, McDaniel has made a series of controversial comments over the years that may come back to haunt him in the general election. For example, “he threatened to leave the country rather than pay reparations for slavery and described trying to pick up Mexican women by calling them ‘mamacitas,’” The Times reported. “He once dismissed a controversy over a wrestling video game in which a white woman holds down a black woman by shrugging, ‘Well, she wasn’t holding down a gay guy.’”

In response to press reports about these and other remarks, a spokesperson for McDaniel, Noel Fritsch, noted last month, “The liberal press loves to attack conservatives…. When Chris got into this race, he knew they would throw mud, so it’s no surprise they’d dredge up decade-old comments made on conservative talk radio. Chris will continue to deliver his conservative message of controlling government spending, lowering taxes and repealing Obamacare in the state.”

Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst, said it’s possible the campaign, as ugly as it’s already gotten, will get even rougher, although many of McDaniel’s damaging comments were already pretty thoroughly aired during the primary campaign.

“Right now the outcome depends on the resources that the Cochran supporters have and that the Barbour people get,” Rothenberg said in an interview. “I think [those in the Cochran camp] are going to try two things: They’re going to try to make the case better to people in parts of Mississippi that Cochran has been important to the state and has delivered, and that without him the state will be hurt economically.

“The other part is,” he added, “yeah, I think they will continue to raise questions about McDaniel, but also portray him as a tool of outside special interests that want to tell Mississippi people how to vote.”

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