Why Democrats are cheering over Mississippi primary

Tea party Republican Chris McDaniel barely leads Sen. Thad Cochran in the Mississippi primary, with the race perhaps heading to a June 24 runoff. If Mr. McDaniel wins, Democrats hope he could implode like other tea party candidates have.

George Clark/AP
Supporters and volunteers for Chris McDaniel watch as the first Mississippi Republican primary returns are broadcast at the McDaniel election night party Tuesday in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Mississippi appears headed for a runoff in its donnybrook of a GOP Senate primary. That’s bad news for the Republican establishment, good news for the tea party – and cause for Democratic hope in November, despite the state’s deep-red hue.

Tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel leads six-term Sen. Thad Cochran by just over 2,000 votes, with 99.5 percent of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning. More important, with a third candidate taking a sliver of the vote, neither of the top two candidates won a majority. If that result holds, Mr. McDaniel and Senator Cochran will go head-to-head in a runoff June 24.

“In a runoff it is hard to see how McDaniel is not a slight favorite, as his supporters are driven by something Cochran’s aren’t – excitement,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Runoffs usually entail a much lower turnout. Therefore the candidate whose core supporters have more intensity tend to win.”

And the tea party is all about intensity. In addition, Cochran has appeared tired, especially compared with the youthful McDaniel. Cochran declined to debate McDaniel.

If McDaniel wins the runoff, Democrats will have a rare – if slight – chance of winning a Republican-held seat in a cycle that generally favors the GOP. Democrats recruited former Rep. Travis Childers, a Blue Dog Democrat who held a solidly Republican House seat from 2008 to 2010, precisely in the hopes that McDaniel would beat Cochran.

Democrats are desperately trying to keep control of the Senate and have far more vulnerable seats than do the Republicans.

McDaniel is new to big-time politics, and Democrats have visions of another Todd Akin, the Republican nominee in the 2012 Senate race in Missouri who squandered victory with comments on “legitimate rape.” Last month, the Mississippi primary descended into nastiness when four tea party McDaniel supporters were arrested over a breakin into the nursing home of Cochran’s bedridden wife. A video containing pictures of Mrs. Cochran was posted on the web, but later taken down.

The scandal threw McDaniel off-message and halted his momentum, but not permanently. Chism Strategies, a Democratic firm that polled the race, found that McDaniel had regained his footing by last Friday.

Still, McDaniel is a riskier bet than Cochran in November. Cochran has been a fixture in Washington representing Mississippi for 42 years, first in the House, then the Senate. McDaniel has served in the state Senate for six years, but is new to statewide politics. And if he wins the nomination, the Democrats will throw everything they can into the race – both money and extensive opposition research.

A trial lawyer by profession, McDaniel is also a former talk radio host, giving Democrats plenty to dig into. During the primary, an old recording of his show surfaced with provocative statements on women, Mexicans, and slaves. The comments garnered some attention, but nothing like the nursing home scandal.

Earlier in the campaign, McDaniel also stumbled when asked by a reporter about aid to Mississippi after hurricane Katrina. As a tea party Republican, McDaniel is preaching less reliance on Washington – a position that seems anathema to a state heavily dependent on federal aid.

But it may be a new day in Mississippi. The last time the state denied renomination to a senator was in 1942, according to John Gizzi, political editor of Newsmax.

Electing a Democrat is another story. The last Democrat to represent Mississippi in the Senate was John Stennis, an old-time Southern Democrat who retired in 1988. During his one term in Congress, Mr. Childers voted against Obamacare and gun restrictions, and he opposes same-sex marriage.

Childers is seen as the strongest recruit the Democrats could have hoped for, but he’s still a long shot. If Cochran manages to win the primary, there are suggestions Childers will drop out. But against McDaniel, he will have to hope for a major gaffe or scandal.

Mississippi Republicans pooh-pooh Childers’s chances altogether. They note that in 2008, when former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove challenged appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R), Mr. Musgrove lost by 10 percentage points. If ever a Democrat could have won, that was the time. It was a Democratic wave year, and with Barack Obama on the ballot in his first presidential election, black turnout was high. Mississippi’s population is 37 percent African American.

But for now, Mississippi has a real barn-burner on its hands. As of 8 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday, McDaniel led with 49.6 percent of the vote, and Cochran had 48.9 percent, with 99.5 percent of the precincts reporting. The difference is 2,128 votes. If the final count gives neither man a majority, there’s a three-week sprint to the runoff on June 24.

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