Energized by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss in Virginia earlier this month, tea party Republicans hope to finish the job Tuesday in Mississippi by unseating six-term Sen. Thad Cochran in a GOP primary.
Mr. Cochran was pushed into a runoff election three weeks ago when neither he nor his principal challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, got 50 percent of the vote. But Mr. McDaniel had higher support on primary night and has been polling well since then, making tea party leaders optimistic they’ll claim another incumbent.
“I think that after Cantor’s loss in Virginia, a knocking off [of] a U.S. Senator in a primary would be another boost for the anti-establishment movement,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. “For the last few months Mississippi has kind of stood alone in this battle, because you’ve had some alignment of the anti-establishment groups for McDaniel against Cochran.”
Oklahoma voters also go to the polls Tuesday, where a Republican primary for the state’s Senate seat pits a tea party favorite, T.W. Shannon, against establishment-backed Rep. James Lankford in a crowded field of five other candidates.
Among the other states where voters go to the polls in party primaries is Maryland, a reliably “blue” state where the hottest race is the Democratic primary for the governorship.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the choice of his party’s establishment and de facto proxy for incumbent Martin O’Malley, is favored over Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Delegate Heather R. Mizeur. All eight of the state’s congressional incumbents are expected to fend off lesser-known or unknown primary challengers.
The Mississippi race will go a long way in deciding whether the limited government army on Capitol Hill — led by the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz — receives reinforcements or whether Mr. Cochran will be rewarded for steering federal dollars back to Mississippi, which regularly ranks as the poorest state in the nation.
The Club for Growth’s super PAC has poured $3.1 million into the race on behalf of Mr. McDaniel, the biggest amount that the influential anti-tax group has ever put into trying to knock off an incumbent lawmaker.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, as well as conservative celebrities such as Sarah Palin and Ron Paul, have lined up behind Mr. McDaniel.
Mr. Cochran, 76, and his allies have battled fiercely, including trying to tie Mr. McDaniel to some of his supporters who were arrested for illegally taking pictures of Mr. Cochran’s wife, Rose, who suffers from dementia, at her nursing home.
More recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has put $1.2 million into the race, funded a pro-Cochran ad featuring Brett Favre, a homegrown hero and former star NFL quarterback.
The Cochran team also has courted black voters and marched out the state’s top elected leaders, including Gov. Phil Bryant, Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Gregg Harper.
On Monday, Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, headlined a Cochran rally at the War Memorial auditorium in downtown Jackson.
“I call on my fellow veterans. I call on my fellow service members to send Thad Cochran, a good and decent and honorable senator, back to the United States Senate,” Mr. McCain said.
Kevin Broughton, spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, which has spent nearly $800,000 for Mr. McDaniel, said the election could mark a turning point in Mississippi politics.
“The landscape here is going to be fundamentally transformed for the state Republican Party after this race going forward, I think permanently,” Mr. Broughton, a Mississippi native, told The Washington Times. “This is the first tremor in [a] sort of seismic shift in the power structure of the Mississippi Republican Party. The power is [shifting] to the grass-roots [level], and that is a healthy thing.”
The final day of campaigning ended on an odd note after news reports surfaced about a robocall in which a female voice urges voters to vote against Mr. McDaniel and to say “No to the tea party,” “No to their obstruction” and “No to their disrespectful treatment of the first African American president.”
Asked whether they orchestrated the automated message, Jordan Russell, a Cochran campaign spokesman, told The Times via email, “Absolutely not.”
“This is a transparent stunt by McDaniel and his allies,” Mr. Russell said. “Why would we send that call into GOP counties?”
Noel Fritsch, a spokesman for the McDaniel campaign, laughed off the accusation that it was somehow involved with the automated message, and said the attempt to tie the call to Mr. McDaniel is a “sure sign of desperation.”
Meanwhile, to win the nomination outright in Oklahoma and avoid an August runoff between the top two vote-getters, a candidate must collect at least 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
Polls suggest that the crowded race is heading to a runoff between Mr. Lankford, a two-term congressman and member of the House GOP leadership, and Mr. Shannon, who has been endorsed by Mr. Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
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