Tea Party Fumble

Travis Childers: The Deep South’s Great Liberal Hope

A Tea Party challenger has forced one of Mississippi’s long-time Republican Senators into a runoff. If the upstart wins, the Democrats are in play for the first time in a generation.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty

Regardless of what happens in Mississippi’s Senate runoff, the Democratic nominee former Congressman Travis Childers will spend the next six months as a protector of the elderly and the infirm.

If the Republican incumbent Thad Cochran manages to pull through his runoff against a Tea Party challenger, Childers will return to managing the nursing home he owns in North Mississippi. He’ll likely take time off from his day job to appear in a parade or two over the summer and go through all the motions of being a candidate but it’s unlikely he’ll find the duties of being a major party nominee for Senate to be any more pressing than running his local neighborhood association.

But, if right-winger Chris McDaniel takes the Republican nomination, things will suddenly change. Childers’ campaign, which has been in a political cocoon, will burst into life in what would become one of the most watched races in the country. The Democrat will present himself as a conservative blue dog fighting to protect the legacy of the 76-year-old Cochran from a radical Tea Party extremist like McDaniel. Childers’ problem is that, at present, he has a rudimentary website, hidden on Google, and has raised just over $50,000 in an effort to win a Senate seat that has been held by Cochran since 1978.

If his opponent is McDaniel, the controversial, bomb-throwing, scandal plagued GOP challenger, Childers has a decent chance of being the first Democratic senator elected from Mississippi since 1982. However, the path for a Democratic candidate in the deeply racially polarized Magnolia State isn’t easy. Childers would need to rev up his campaign dramatically and start raising serious money while building a campaign staff capable of turning out African American voters and persuading whites who have abandoned the Democratic Party in national races to return to their past allegiances one more time. It’s not that he has an uphill climb but he is doing it from a standing start.

While national pundits are deeply skeptical of Childers’s chances in a one-on-one faceoff, noting that Obama won only 10% of the white vote in Mississippi in 2012, both Democrats as well as Mississippi Republicans affiliated with Cochran see a different picture. After all, Childers would only need to only get about 1 in 4 white voters on his side and a pro-life, pro-gun candidate named Travis is likely to significantly outperform Barack Obama among white southerners—-especially when Obama isn’t even on the ballot. Further, at least one private poll shows Childers in a statistical tie with McDaniel in a November matchup.

The contours of a Childers-McDaniel general election are still unclear. There are no public polls and there are still three weeks left for the runoff to get even dirtier than the bitter primary fight we have seen so far. However, in a year where Republicans once felt confident that they could run the table and take back the Senate, nominating McDaniel would give Democrats one more opportunity to steal a seat and allow Harry Reid to keep his role as Majority Leader. The only question is whether Childers can get his act together sufficiently to allow Democrats to take advantage the situation.