Hope springs eternal in the hearts of all political pundits. Even in a year in which Democrats face heavy odds in their efforts to hold on to the Senate, President Obama’s party has had some positive story lines of their own, especially those concerning the efforts of embattled red-state incumbents like Arkansas’s David Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu to stay atop the polls. Yesterday’s announcements of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that amount to an administration declaration of war on coal states like Kentucky and West Virginia will have a devastating impact on Democratic candidates. But today Democrats are hoping that the victory of Tea Party-backed candidates in both Iowa and Mississippi will brighten their chances of winning those states.
Yet despite the antipathy that many liberals have for Iowa favorite Joni Ernst and the hope that connections to a scandal will sink Chris McDaniel, Democrats shouldn’t get their hopes up. If, as expected, Ernst wins the GOP Senate nomination in Iowa and McDaniel topples incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran, neither of those developments is likely to work in the Democrats’ favor.
Ernst bolted to the top of a crowded Iowa Senate primary field with a pair of commercials that conservatives adored. By speaking about growing up castrating hogs and then being filmed as she shot at targets, Ernst tickled the fancy of her intended audience even though elites on both coasts were appalled. Some may assume that her down-home style will invite ridicule in a general election, but even experienced pundits sometimes forget that all politics is local and that she is running in a state where farm interests dominate. That’s something that Democrat nominee Rep. Bruce Braley forgot when he famously told a fundraiser before trial lawyers to think how horrible it would be if the Senate Judiciary committee would be chaired by “an Iowa farmer”—Chuck Grassley—if the GOP wins the Senate.
Far from being a weak outlier beloved by the Tea Party in the fashion of Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle, Ernst has garnered both insurgent and establishment support with disparate figures such as Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin both endorsing here. She is actually the strongest Republican in the race. While Braley is still favored over all the GOP contenders, he is in for the fight of his life against Ernst. Democrats shouldn’t count on the hog-castrating sharpshooting National Guard colonel being an easy mark in November.
As for Mississippi, the spin coming from much of the liberal mainstream media is that a McDaniel victory in today’s primary puts that seat into play. Their thinking is that McDaniel’s supposed connection to a stunt in which one of his supporters snuck into the nursing home room of Cochran’s ailing wife will fatally damage him in a general election even if it doesn’t prevent the challenger from winning the primary.
There’s no doubt a lot of Mississippians are disgusted by this story. Until that happened, the aging Cochran, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, seemed headed for defeat. Anger at McDaniel’s response to the incident seemed for a while to doom him but as the weeks have passed, many conservatives have felt that he was being unfairly blamed for the action of a person over whom he had no control. Moreover, Cochran’s main strength—bringing home the bacon to Mississippi—is no longer seen as such a great idea to Republicans who understand that the taxpayers always have to pay the bill when senators give out gifts. Cochran’s lackluster style isn’t inspiring confidence in his camp. Just as important, if neither candidate wins an outright majority tonight, it’s highly unlikely that Cochran can win a July runoff against McDaniel.
Will Cochran loyalists abandon McDaniel in November thus handing the seat to the Democrat Travis Childers?
No doubt some establishment Republicans are angry enough at McDaniel’s cheek in challenging the longtime incumbent and bitter about the way Cochran’s personal life was invaded in a no-holds-barred style. But the idea that this will lead to a massive desertion to the Democrats is a fantasy. Few Mississippi conservatives are willing to take the risk of their deep-red state being responsible for keeping Harry Reid as majority leader. And even if a percentage of GOP voters do back Childers, this is such a Republican electorate that it isn’t likely to make a difference. The worst mistake national Democrats could make would be to invest money in a race they can’t win in Mississippi rather than using it to help an incumbent elsewhere with a decent shot at victory.
Liberals may be looking for some hope in the featured primaries today, but even if the Republicans they think they want win their races, that won’t help the Democrats hold onto the Senate.