Looks like the big Tea Party comeback of 2014 began and ended with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprising loss to David Brat. Last night in Mississippi, GOP establishment candidate Thad Cochran eked out a victory over neo-Confederate-friendly Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel, a 41-year-old attorney and talk radio host, in a runoff election. The 76-year-old incumbent, running for his seventh Senate term, beat out his opponent by a bit more than 6000 votes.
One has to appreciate the irony of Cochran’s campaign strategy in the runoff. His victory hinged, in part, on getting African-American voters to the polls. Although only about 10 percent of Mississippi’s African-American voters are registered Republicans, the state’s open primary system permits voters to cross party lines. It appears that the strategy may have worked because turnout was up in predominately black counties.
Hint to Tea Party for future elections: Perhaps it’s not a good idea to publicize the fact that you’ll be sending out a small army of poll watchers to majority black precincts to “monitor” voting activities, especially on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. It smacks of voter intimidation and might be enough to incite voters who were otherwise inclined to stay home out to the polls just to flip you the bird.
As Ed Kilgore of Talking Points Memo opines, Cochran’s victory could have only happened in Mississippi and is attributable to a number of factors other than increased African-American turnout. Mississippi relies heavily on federal largess, and Cochran, rather than trying to out-conservative McDaniel, played up his proven ability to bring federal dollars back to the state. In those coastal areas that depend on military spending, Cochran saw both turnout and his percentage of the vote improve.
Kilgore also suggested that Cochran’s appeal to Democrats, who weren’t expecting a Senate victory in November no matter which Republican won the primary, proved successful. Given a choice between Cochran and the more extreme McDaniel, who vowed to eschew pork-barrel politics, Cochran probably didn’t look that bad. A few of the voter remarks published in the New York Times seem to confirm that Cochran was wise not to go mano-a-mano with McDaniel over their respective conservative credentials and to cast McDaniel as an extremist:
Jeanie Munn, who lives in Hattiesburg, said Mr. McDaniel “represents a threat to the state.” She cited a vote he cast in the State Senate against a new nursing school building at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Roger Smith, a black Democrat who said he was being paid to organize for Mr. Cochran, said, “I don’t know too much about McDaniel other than what McDaniel’s saying: that he’s Tea Party, he’s against Obama, he don’t like black people.”
“You’re going to get one of the white guys in there,” he said. “You got to make a choice.”
…Heath Kleinke, 38, held his 4-month-old baby and said he wanted her to get a good education in Mississippi, something he believed would be made more difficult if Mr. McDaniel were to make good on his proposal to cut federal funding.
“The fact that he openly criticizes Thad Cochran for talking to Democrats riled me up from the beginning,” added Mr. Kleinke, a graphic designer.
McDaniel isn’t taking his defeat graciously. Thus far, he’s refused to concede. In his non-concession speech last night, McDaniel blamed liberal Democrats and “dozens of irregularities” for his defeat and vowed to ensure that “the sanctity of the vote is upheld.” He further vowed “to fight on until it was confirmed that the contest for the party’s Republican nomination was determined in fact by Republican voters” even though Mississippi law allowed Democrats who did not vote in the original June 3rd primary to crossover and vote in the runoff.
Still, other than to play Sore Loserman and yell “voter fraud,” it’s not clear how McDaniel might challenge the results of Tuesday’s election. Mississippi law has no provisions for the recount of a runoff election, which means McDaniel would have to challenge the legitimacy of certain votes. J. Christian Adams, the lead attorney for a Tea Party effort to ensure that no improper votes were cast in the Mississippi runoff, says he’ll review the hundreds of pages of reports churned out by McDaniel’s league of poll watchers before announcing any decisions. But, as Rick Hasen of The Election Blog points out:
…the idea that the courts are going to come in and subtract an uncertain number of “illegal” Democratic votes cast presumably for Cochran seems most unlikely. The reason to bring such a suit is to delegitimize Cochran’s win, and to keep McDaniel’s supporters fired up with incendiary talk of a “stolen” election. That might be good for McDaniel to keep his supporters happy, but it will win him no friends in the Republican establishment if he wants to run for something else going forward.
Personally, I was happy to see McDaniel go down. While there’s a good argument to be made that, after six terms (36 years!), it was time for Cochran to retire, the last thing Washington needs is another liberal-hating Tea Party fire-breather, a la Ted Cruz, to keep anything constructive from happening in Congress.
I suspect McDaniel won’t go down quietly though. His non-concession speech implies as much:
“As you know today folks there were literally dozens of irregularities reported all across the state and you know why,” McDaniel said. “You read the stories. You’re familiar. You are familiar with the problems that we have. Now it’s our job to make sure that the sanctity of the vote is upheld… And so we will stand with courage. We will stand with judgment. We will stand with integrity and we will stand with dedication.”
What remains to be seen is how strongly McDaniel links his loss to that great Republican bogeyman: voter fraud. That nitwit Sarah Palin is already calling for an investigation into “potential legal violations” (i.e. voter fraud) in the Mississippi runoff election. But the McDaniel campaign laid the groundwork even before the election, claiming the potential for voter fraud almost as soon as Cochran’s campaign announced it was hiring someone to get out the African-American vote. Moreover, the groups McDaniel enlisted to “observe” the polls in black precincts–groups like True the Vote–are among those most likely to associate voter fraud with African-American voters.
A TPM reader notes the obvious: “the GOP openly ties race and voting fraud.” Or at least certain members of the GOP do. And that perhaps is the biggest lesson we can draw from Tuesday’s runoff. Race still matters.