Thad Cochran Escapes Bitter Tea Party in Mississippi

The Republican establishment dodged another potentially embarrassing Tea Party challenge with the help of Mississippi’s African-American voters.

Like Lazarus, Thad Cochran rose from the dead on Tuesday in Mississippi.

In a Republican primary runoff where turnout surged compared to that in the first round of voting, Cochran escaped with a narrow 51-49 percent win over Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. Boosted by high Democratic turnout, particularly among African Americans in Jackson and the Mississippi Delta, the six-term U.S. senator pulled out a surprise victory after finishing behind the two-term state senator in the initial primary on June 3. But with McDaniel threatening litigation, this political saga may not be over yet.

The campaign between Cochran and McDaniel had became a key litmus test for the battle between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party as outside groups and celebrities flocked to the campaign in recent weeks. Cochran boasted the support of Senator John McCain, the Chamber of Commerce and NFL great Brett Favre, while McDaniel was backed by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the Club for Growth, and television host Chuck Woolery. The race focused on Cochran’s long record in Washington working to deliver federal money to the Magnolia State and what was perceived as a tendency toward moderation and compromise. While Cochran bragged about his accomplishments as the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, McDaniel attacked him as an example of all that was wrong with Washington and pork-barrel spending.

On election night, McDaniel took to the stage after being introduced as “the Republican nominee for Senate.” The Tea Partier then raged against “a Republican primary decided by liberal Democrats” and essentially accused Cochran of “abandoning the conservative movement.” McDaniel claimed that “there were literally dozens of irregularities reported all across the state” and hinted at litigation, saying, “Now it’s our job to make sure that the sanctity of the vote is upheld, before this race ends we have to be absolutely certain that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.” Breitbart News, which has served as the house organ of the McDaniel campaign, is reporting that the Mississippi state senator is considering a legal challenge of the results.

In contrast, Cochran, who didn’t speak on the night of the June 3, primary, gave a brief speech where he talked in platitudes about “better jobs for Mississippi workers” and “a military force to defend the interest and capacity of the United States of America.”

The runoff had become increasingly bitter in recent weeks. As Cochran appealed to Democrats, particularly African Americans in the racially polarized state, McDaniel’s campaign cried foul and talked about using election monitors to discourage Democrats from voting. At issue was a Mississippi law that mandated that any voters in a party primary would have to commit to supporting that party’s nominee in November. However, the law was nigh on unenforceable and would have also presented challenges for McDaniel himself, who had refused to commit to support Cochran if he lost his primary.

If McDaniel challenges the results, it’s likely that this law would be basis of any legal argument. Cochran’s victory was due to an increased turnout in predominantly black Democratic strongholds. J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer who was running an independent poll observation effort on behalf of pro-McDaniel groups, told The Daily Beast that his “next steps are to read a couple hundred pages of observer reports.” If a legal challenge fails, although it is too late under Mississippi law for McDaniel to run as a third-party candidate, he could still mount a write-in campaign.

Even before the possibility of a court battle, the primary has also been one of the strangest political contests in recent American history. Among the highlights were a McDaniel supporter first getting caught breaking into the nursing home of Cochran’s wife and then, on primary night, McDaniel supporters, including a staffer, were found locked in a county courthouse in the wee hours of the morning. Cochran also did little to alleviate concerns that he might have been too old for continued government service. His campaign often shielded him from the press and it meant that when the senator gave a sarcastic reply to a reporter’s inquiry about Eric Cantor’s primary loss in Virginia, it was read as possible evidence of senility. The race also featured a whispering campaign pushed by the McDaniel campaign about Cochran’s relationship with a longtime staffer, fellow septuagenarian Kay Webber.

Former Rep. Travis Childers, the Democratic nominee, already tried to take advantage of McDaniel’s sour grapes. In a statement he said “One thing is clear tonight; Senator Cochran does not have the confidence of his state, let alone his own party. The majority of Republicans voted for change in Washington. And if we are going to change Washington, we will need to change who we send to Washington.” Political insiders from both parties considered Childers to be a strong candidate against McDaniel, even in a deep-red state like Mississippi, but a sacrificial lamb against Cochran. However, the possibility of a legal challenge by McDaniel and a political revolt by his Tea Party supporters could drastically alter the electoral math in the Magnolia State.

While it seems like Cochran has safely won the race, it’s too soon be absolutely sure. After all, this is a race where the only thing that’s ever been truly certain is that things can only get weirder.