Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mississippi Senate race

Will GOP Regret Torching Miss. Tea Party?

The conventional wisdom about Senator Thad Cochran’s victory in the Mississippi Republican primary runoff yesterday assures the GOP of retaining the seat in November. But the bitterness engendered by the establishment candidate’s using large numbers of liberal Democrat voters to win a narrow triumph may do just the opposite.

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The conventional wisdom about Senator Thad Cochran’s victory in the Mississippi Republican primary runoff yesterday assures the GOP of retaining the seat in November. But the bitterness engendered by the establishment candidate’s using large numbers of liberal Democrat voters to win a narrow triumph may do just the opposite.

Some in the party establishment feared a win for Tea Party insurgent Chris McDaniel would have sent the media rummaging through the archive of his radio shows finding absurd statements that would have alienated moderate voters and allowed a relatively conservative Democrat to make a race of it. But with the six-term incumbent safely nominated, the assumption is that the November election will be more or less a formality that will allow Republicans to concentrate on other states where they have a chance to pick up seats.

Cochran’s ability to turn out black Democrats in huge numbers to offset his unpopularity among members of his own party in an open primary state could also be interpreted as a triumph for GOP outreach. For a party that desperately needs more minority support, some may argue that Cochran’s tactic of paying black political organizers to persuade hard-core Democrats to vote in a Republican primary is a sign that African-Americans can be enticed to support a GOP candidate under some circumstances.

While that is a rather dubious assumption, the bottom line about the Mississippi primary is that the Tea Party got out-organized, out-spent and outflanked by an incumbent. Cochran was able to use support from the party establishment, business, and local constituencies who were influenced by the senator’s ability to manipulate the federal budget. That bought him a win in a primary that should have been dominated by the highly motivated conservative activists who wanted to retire him.

But the general satisfaction among establishment Republicans today needs to be tempered by the knowledge that what Cochran did in Mississippi may hurt the party in ways they may not quite understand.

The first problem is that by winning a GOP primary on the strength of black Democrat support, Cochran may have pushed his party opponents over the edge to the point where they may actively consider a suicidal effort to sabotage his chances in November. For all the talk of a McDaniel win giving the Democrats a small, if unlikely, chance of winning the seat, by denying him the nomination in a manner that left his supporters feeling more cheated than beaten, the party leadership may have actually increased their problems rather than eliminating them. A write-in campaign for McDaniel in the general election has no chance of winning him the seat. But, if he was able to mobilize the same Tea Party activists who brought him to the brink of a victory in the first round of voting, he could do serious damage to Cochran.

Why might Tea Partiers act in such a self-destructive manner?

Simply put, the worst problem for Republicans is not the prospect of nominating outlier candidates who will lose winnable seats in the general election. That has happened and it has cost the party dearly to be saddled with the likes of Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Todd Akin. But an even greater peril is the possibility that Tea Party activists will stop fighting to take control of the GOP and abandon it altogether as being merely a slightly different version of the same Democrat tax and spending machine they are pledged to defeat. Whatever promises Cochran made or didn’t make to persuade black power brokers to back him yesterday, his win exemplifies everything that Tea Partiers despise about members of the permanent governing class in both parties.

The short-term problems that a McDaniel revenge campaign might have this year might be mitigated by the fact that it is simply impossible for any Republican candidate—whether it was Cochran or McDaniel—to lose in this deep-red state. But as much as Republicans are right to worry about their party losing touch with the concerns of independents and minorities whose votes have tipped the last two presidential elections to Barack Obama, a GOP that loses its most motivated and hard-working voters is doomed.

A party establishment that doesn’t just outwork the Tea Party but also seeks to negate the will of the majority of Republican voters is one that is in danger of alienating the base. Whether or not Chris McDaniel seeks to play the spoiler in November, that’s the kind of thing that loses general elections as easily as extreme candidates.

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If Cochran Loses, It Isn’t a Revolution

Today’s Mississippi Republican senatorial primary is being billed as a potential revolution for Republicans in the state and the nation. The smackdown between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel is seen in many quarters as nothing less than a clash of political civilizations as the establishment attempts to hold back the rising tide of Tea Party insurgents.

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Today’s Mississippi Republican senatorial primary is being billed as a potential revolution for Republicans in the state and the nation. The smackdown between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel is seen in many quarters as nothing less than a clash of political civilizations as the establishment attempts to hold back the rising tide of Tea Party insurgents.

If you watch some of the ads being aired in the state as well as listen to the comments from many in the state’s party establishment, it’s easy to see why so many people are viewing it in this manner. The race turned ugly months ago and has gotten progressively nastier after McDaniel fell a hair short of a clear majority in the initial primary forcing today’s runoff with Cochran. Some of the Republican primaries that took place earlier in the year were seen as indicating that the Tea Party had run its course and that moderates were still in control of the GOP. But the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary earlier this month and the prospect of McDaniel winning today has the party establishment back in panic mode talking about revolutions and worrying that a few more such defeats for their preferred candidates will doom the Republicans.

The talk about the death of the Tea Party was not so much premature as it was misleading since virtually all Republicans now subscribe—or at least pay lip service—to the cause of limited government and scaling back the nation’s addiction to taxes and spending. But as in the Cantor race, where a national figure found himself out of touch with his party’s grass roots, what’s going in Mississippi isn’t so much a revolution as it is the oldest story in politics. No one, not even longtime incumbents who act like university professors with tenure, is assured of victory when faced with a spirited challenger who is a fresh face.

This is a basic political truth that a lot of the so-called Republican establishment, especially in Mississippi, seem to have forgotten. Just because Thad Cochran has been in the Senate for 42 years doing more or less what he thought his constituents wanted him to do doesn’t mean that he hasn’t passed his political expiration date. Voters get tired of the same old thing in the same old package and sometimes prefer the younger, more dynamic voice. They also sometimes change their minds about what’s really important.

Cochrane has spent his career helping his state use the federal government as an ATM as Mississippi gets far more money from Washington than it pays into the system. But even in a state that has clearly benefitted from Congress’ out-of-control spending habits it is possible for voters to think this isn’t the way to run a railroad. Cochran still doesn’t seem to understand that bringing home the bacon isn’t a guarantee of reelection and even speaks at times as if he thinks its unfair that some in his party hold his role in the expansion of government power against him.

In short, what may be happening in Mississippi isn’t so much the Deep South version of the storming of the Bastille as it is the very American ritual of voters throwing out a politician who has lost touched with his base. Doing so doesn’t so much indicate that Republicans are getting extreme as it does that Cochran, as opposed to other longtime incumbents—like Wyoming’s Mike Enzi—who have maintained their grasp of local political realities, stayed too long in the fray. Like all last hurrahs, the leave taking may be painful for all involved but the end of the story is inevitable. McDaniel’s victory won’t mean his party has gone over the edge. Nor will it, despite Democratic hopes, necessarily put this ultra-red state in play this fall. But it will show that the establishment should have nudged Cochran out rather than going down fighting with him.

That said, there is one caveat to be mentioned in any discussion of this race and whether a McDaniel victory will hurt his party. Cochran has cynically attempted to get black Democrats to cross party lines and vote for him today. I doubt he will have much success in doing so, but the reports about the McDaniel camp setting up poll watchers to prevent voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary from taking part in the GOP runoff is potential political dynamite. If any of McDaniel’s Tea Party supporters are seen to be harassing blacks trying to vote today in Mississippi of all places, the Republican Party will never live it down. If McDaniel has any brains, he will tell his people to stand down and to avoid interfering with anyone trying to vote. If he doesn’t, the optics will be so bad that it will not only affect that state’s politics but that of the entire country.

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Misguided Dem Optimism in Iowa and Miss.

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.

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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.

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