JACKSON, Mississippi—It's the Tea Party's biggest test in 2014: can the movement knock down an establishment Republican whose name in and of itself is an institution in the state he’s represented for 42 years?
Ten days out from the election, both sides—the Tea Party and establishment Republicans—have sent in reinforcements for the final fight.
While there have been some bright spots for the Tea Party this year—Ben Sasse’s victory in Nebraska, for instance—the five-year-old grassroots uprising seemed unprepared for the money and power the Establishment could wield, now that they're on guard.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell swatted his primary challenger Matt Bevin away like a fly. The Chamber of Commerce-backed Thom Tillis marched to an easy victory in North Carolina, avoiding a runoff against Mark Harris or Greg Brannon. Two establishment candidates—David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston—are headed into the runoff in Georgia’s U.S. Senate primary, while the Sarah Palin-backed Karen Handel is headed home.
House races haven’t been much better for Tea Partiers. While Tea Party-backed Barry Loudermilk and Dr. Bob Johnson made it into their respective runoff races in Georgia and Walter Jones fended off an establishment primary challenger from an ex-Bush administration GOP establishment official, candidates like Katrina Pierson and Bryan Smith failed to wipe out close allies of Speaker John Boehner—House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)—in their respective primaries. There is a chance in a runoff this week that longtime Texas GOP congressman Ralph Hall could fall to conservative John Ratcliffe, but otherwise hopeful conservatives across the country are failing to turn the outrage against Washington into electoral victory.
Heading into the 2014 cycle, the movement's reputation caused trepidation. The Tea Party has stomped out-of-touch incumbents like now former Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah, replacing him with conservative Mike Lee, sent Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate against all odds and money when he faced off against David Dewhurst in 2012, and saw Rand Paul beat the McConnell machine on the Senate GOP leader’s own Kentucky turf by besting McConnell’s pick for that seat—Trey Grayson—in 2010.
This year's string of losses has put the Tea Party badly in need of a big win, prompting players on both sides of the divide to pour resources into the Mississippi race.
The characters on each side of this battle are perfect for the political theater showdown: Tea Party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel is a conservative underdog in the mold of Cruz, Lee, or Paul, who has similarly embraced the grassroots with a tinge of his own southern brand of political flare. Thad Cochran, the longtime GOP senator from Mississippi, is seeking a seventh term in the U.S. Senate after 42 years in Congress, proudly feeding taxpayer dollars back to Mississippi throughout most of it.
Not only has Cochran always been on the side of the GOP establishment in Mississippi and in Washington: he helped build it. With the exception of what seemed like an abnormality with Prentiss Walker’s election to Mississippi’s fourth congressional district seat for one term in the mid-1960s, no Republican had represented Mississippi in the U.S. Congress since the mid-1800s. That was until until Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, both in 1972, were elected to the U.S. House—Cochran from the fourth congressional district and Lott from the fifth.
In fact, it was so unexpected that any Republican—never mind two—would win in Mississippi when Cochran and Lott did that Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, authors of Mississippi Politics: The Struggle For Power, 1976-2008, reported that Cochran’s wife Rose thought of Thad running as kind of a joke.
“In 1972, the thirty-four-year-old Cochran was having a hard time convincing himself early on that he would win, especially when he came home after his first meeting with [conservative activist Billy] Mounger and asked his wife, ‘Rose, how would like to be married to a Congressman?’” Nash and Taggart wrote in their heavily reported book, published by the University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. “Her reply: ‘Which one?’”
Cochran got lucky in the general election: Two Democrats, one white Democrat Ellis Bodron—who Nash and Taggart wrote was an “embodiment of the ‘old guard’ political establishment”—and the “black independent” Eddie McBride. Cochran secured a plurality of the vote, as Bodron and McBridge split the Democratic base over racial issues.
Cochran hasn’t looked back since. In 1978, he ran for the U.S. Senate seat that longtime old white Democrat senator Jim Eastland—who ended up announcing his retirement—held for years. “For the past sixty years, only four men have served Mississippi in the U.S. Senate: Jim Eastland, John Stennis, Thad Cochran, and Trent Lott,” Nash and Taggart wrote in their book, which was published in 2008 but written before then-Congressman Roger Wicker took over Lott’s seat when Lott retired. “The most colorful, transparent, racially inflammatory, and overtly political of these has been Jim Eastland.”
That’s why many didn’t know why Eastland backed down and essentially gave his Senate seat away to Cochran. If Eastland had run, he probably wouldn’t have drawn a black Democrat into the general election with him to split the vote. But since Eastland retired, Cochran again faced a split Democratic ticket against white Democrat Maurice Dantin and black independent Charles Evers. Cochran didn’t even get 50 percent of the vote in this election either, but the plurality he received—45.3 percent—catapulted him into the U.S. Congress’ upper chamber.
The only potentially credible challenger Cochran ever faced for his Senate seat since then was in 1984 when ex-Democratic Mississippi Gov. William Winter—who had just championed a massively popular education reform bill through a previously gridlocked statehouse—ran against him.
Haley Barbour had just failed, a couple years earlier, to unseat Stennis—running a campaign largely focused on Stennis’ old age—so for some reason, Winter decided to have a go at Cochran. With the overly popular Ronald Reagan at the top of the ticket seeking re-election to the White House, however—winning 62 percent of Mississippi voters—Cochran sailed past that challenge with 61 percent of the vote. Ironically, just eight years earlier in 1976, according to Nash and Taggart, Cochran helped Gerald Ford crush Reagan’s bid for the GOP nomination for the presidency that year. In their book, Nash and Taggart detail how Mississippi actually became the battleground state not only for the GOP nomination for the White House that year—but also for the presidency itself. Mississippi delivered Ford the GOP nomination over Reagan, and delivered Jimmy Carter the White House—the only time since 1956 that the state’s electoral votes went to a Democrat in a presidential election.
Cochran ran unopposed for re-election in 1990, and faced no-name Democrats who couldn’t break 30 percent and 20 percent respectively in 1996 and 2002. In 2008, Democrat Erik Fleming put up a fight against Cochran but nothing serious, as he couldn’t even secure 40 percent of the vote.
In 2014, it’s not the general election where Cochran faces his first ever threat. It’s in the primary, with youthful crusader McDaniel—a two-term state senator who clerked for Judge Charles Pickering and hosted a nationally syndicated talk radio program—is crisscrossing the state giving Cochran the biggest run for his money he’s ever had. McDaniel’s battle against Cochran in state—melded together against the backdrop of the national movement in peril—could prove to be larger than jut a battle between the two men.
“I never see this guy leading a battle—making the case for liberty or private property rights or the Constitution,” nationally syndicated radio host Mark Levin asked McDaniel in an interview last week, speaking of course about Cochran. “He’s almost like in the Witness Protection Program.”
“Mississippi is the most conservative state in the Republic,” McDaniel answered. “It needs a fighter, a strong principled conservative who’s not afraid to stand. And lately we haven’t stood for very much. That’s true of the party as a whole. We have to find our backbone again.”
Or, it could be, as MS GOP chairman and Cochran ally Joe Nosef says, just a fight between a man who’s done a lot for Mississippi in the past and a man who wants to do a lot for Mississippi. But the millions pouring in from both sides of the national GOP war—the Chamber of Commerce and Haley Barbour’s clients for Cochran, and the Club For Growth, Citizens United and Tea Party groups for McDaniel—and no lack of national political talent on the ground, seem to suggest this is not just a 2014 battlefield. It’s the 2014 battlefield.