The Tea Party Will Win One in Mississippi

Chris McDaniel will oust Thad Cochran in the Magnolia State’s Senate runoff.

So far this year, the “tea party versus establishment” narrative has been a tough one for grassroots conservatives.

“I think we are going to crush them [tea party challengers] everywhere,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell predicted back in March. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.” And so far, he’s been proved right. Based on Tuesday’s Mississippi primary results, however, he may have to eat those words.

The 2014 election cycle got off to a bad start for the tea party, when it failed to recruit credible challengers to take on establishment incumbent U.S. senators in South Carolina (Lindsey Graham) and Tennessee (Lamar Alexander). Then the tea party suffered a painful loss when its anointed challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, lost badly to the aforementioned McConnell in Kentucky. Bevin scored a mere 35 percent of the primary vote, despite heavy spending and high-profile efforts by national groups like FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Bevin even lost among tea partiers, as Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out. But that is probably more due to the challenger’s failings — he allowed McConnell, who proudly supported the 2008 Wall Street bailout, to hang the moniker “Bailout Bevin” around his neck — than to the weakness of the challenger’s message. When a pro-bailout incumbent can only win by painting his anti-bailout opponent as pro-bailout, it’s a sign that the anti-bailout argument has probably won.

Only in the open-seat senate race in Nebraska has the tea party been able to plausibly claim a victory, although not a very satisfying one. Religiously conservative health policy expert Ben Sasse defeated three other conservative challengers to become the likely next U.S. Senator from the heavily Republican Cornhusker State. National tea party groups made Sasse their darling, fearing Nebraska might be their only win this cycle and enticed by the open enmity shown by the hated McConnell and his K Street cronies toward the articulate and imaginative Sasse. But local tea party groups were divided, and even before the voting had begun, Sasse had begun mending fences with McConnell, thus blurring the stark, good-versus-evil narrative.

But then came Mississippi.

The surprising result of Tuesday’s primary: a June 24 runoff between six-term incumbent Senator Thad Cochran and his tea party challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel, both of whom got 49 percent of the vote. With Cochran’s failure to win an outright majority, and thus the nomination, the tea party’s hope for at least one real win this cycle has risen from the ashes. (The winner of the runoff is likely to win the general election in the overwhelmingly Republican state.)

McDaniel has the advantage, because he exceeded expectations, while Cochran, the frontrunner, underperformed, comparatively speaking. Runoffs tend to favor the second-place finisher, because the first-place finisher often looks like he lost a vote of confidence. Cochran’s simultaneously very close (he missed 50 percent by just 1,400 votes) yet surprisingly weak showing (McDaniel almost tagged him) signals trouble for the long-term incumbent, who should have done better.

Cochran is the very symbol of Washington power, having risen to the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee and made himself a “king of pork.” His failure to win outright came despite heavy spending by the Chamber of Commerce and Mississippi Conservatives, a pro-Cochran political action committee supported by former Mississippi governor (and D.C. corporate lobbyist) Haley Barbour.

McDaniel will benefit from the fact that runoffs tend to be lower-turnout affairs than primaries. That favors motivated voters, which in this case are likely to be those seeking to send a signal to the establishment by ending the 76-year-old Cochran’s long career. Having so few wins to show for their efforts this year, tea partiers can be counted on to put extra effort into electing their man McDaniel.

Cochran’s main hope is to broaden the electorate in the open runoff by getting large numbers of Democrats and independents to show up. His model here may be Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who managed in 2012 to stamp out a surprisingly strong tea party challenge by making the runoff a referendum on “outsiders” like Glenn Beck and FreedomWorks meddling in Utah voters’ choices. That argument seemed to work.

But to pull off a similar feat in this race, Cochran will have to go more ugly. McDaniel has a lot of enthusiastic support, and unlike most other tea party candidates around the country has had a united grassroots base behind him from the very start. So Cochran will have to scrape the barrel to find some dirt that will stick. McDaniel may have provided some by speaking at a Confederate History appreciation event and making some racially charged radio comments that could be interpreted as dog whistles to you know who.

But playing the race card may not be a winning strategy in a Republican runoff in Mississippi. The state’s flag still proudly features the Stars and Bars, and eight in 10 Magnolia State Republicans think the wrong side won the Civil War. Attempting to persuade large numbers of Democrats to meddle in a GOP primary could boomerang on Cochran. The incumbent has to tread carefully.

Cochran’s long record of voting for things that conservatives hate, like tax hikes, Medicare expansion and the Department of Education, puts his conservative bona fides in doubt in an era when the very definition of “conservative” — or rather, of “acceptable conservative incumbent voting behavior” — is changing. Republicans have always claimed to be for individual liberty, fiscal common sense and constitutionally limited government, but the five-year-old tea party movement has tried to get GOP incumbents to actually vote that way.

In a sense, of course, this is nothing new. The current rebellion is just the latest in a recurring series of waves, another example the old “conservative” versus “Rockefeller” Republicans drama that propelled Barry Goldwater to the GOP presidential nomination in 1964, and almost won the nomination for Ronald Reagan in 1976. It’s the same dynamic, in fact, that in the ‘70s and ‘80s helped propel people like Orrin Hatch and Mitch McConnell — and yes, Thad Cochran — into the Senate. The GOP is prone to these recurring, generational insurgencies because its elected officials tend to go to Washington promising to do good, and end up doing well.

The tea party, which is admittedly more mood than party, has been struggling to find a line that will hold against the endless expansion of public debt and federal power. But it can’t make such a line hold without first changing the behavior of elected Republicans who claim to share its agenda. And it can’t do that without putting the fear of God into them. Which means it has to not just hold rallies, but take scalps. In 2010, Bob Bennett of Utah unwillingly provided his scalp to Mike Lee. Two years later, Richard Lugar of Indiana gave his to Richard Mourdock (who went on to lose his to the Democrat in the general). This year, it’s looking like Thad Cochran’s turn for the traditional biennial tea party haircut.

What, one may wonder, is the point? What is the point of the endless “GOP civil wars”? What philosophical difference really separates the would-be scalp-seekers and their chosen scalp-donors?

To progressives, Cochran and McDaniel must look like just another pair of right-wing white Southern Christian peas in a pod, voicing the same conservative boilerplate on almost every current issue. But to those who are actually engaged in the fight, the difference boils down to the willingness to fight, to draw and hold lines in the sand. And there Cochran has nothing to offer. He has never been a fighter and won’t ever be. But McDaniel might.

Behind that divide is a still deeper one, and that is between the pro-business and pro-market wings of the GOP. As the Washington Examiner’s astute Tim Carney nicely summarizes, in Mississippi you find, “Rich libertarian investors on McDaniel’s side. Rich Republican lobbyists on Cochran’s side. People who want smaller government because they believe it’s best versus people who want flexible Republicans elected — either because it profits them, or because they’re just loyal to the GOP.” He adds, “This has been the split in the GOP since the bailouts: K Street versus the Tea Party.”

Exactly. The “tea party versus establishment” fight pits pro-business Republicans against pro-market Republicans for control of the future of the party. Will the GOP fight for smaller, constitutionally limited government, or keep going along with ever-growing, never-limited government?

And although, as we’ve seen with the issue of bailouts, pro-market Republicans are winning the arguments, pro-business Republicans are still winning the elections. That, of course, makes the pro-market Republicans all the more frustrated, and all the more hungry for scalps.

Which is why I’m calling it for McDaniel on June 24.

Dean Clancy, a former senior Republican official in Congress and the White House, writes on U.S. health reform, budget, and constitutional issues. Follow him at deanclancy.com or on twitter @deanclancy.


[Originally published at usnews.com, Jun. 6, 2014. @usnewsopinion. Republished at deanclancy.com.]

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