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.