Will Mississippi video scandal cost tea party a Senate scalp?

Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed Chris McDaniel are tied in polls going into Tuesday's primary. Mississippi is the tea party's best chance at defeating an incumbent GOP senator this year.

(L.-r.) George Clark/AP, Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger/AP
Senate challenger Chris McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran (r.) are tied in polls going into Tuesday's primary.

One of the 2014 cycle’s more bizarre primaries draws to a close Tuesday, as Mississippi voters head to the polls. For the tea party, it’s a moment of truth – the movement’s best shot at taking out an incumbent Republican senator this year.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), a young insurgent, is trying to deny six-term US Sen. Thad Cochran (R) a seventh term. Polls show the race is dead even.  

For both wings of the Republican Party, the stakes couldn’t be higher. For the tea party, a McDaniel win would show that the movement still has electoral punch in high-profile races, an important message to donors. To the GOP establishment, successfully fending off the challenge to a beloved senior member might cool tea party ardor for going after incumbents in their own party. Better to take aim at Democrats, say Republican leaders.

If McDaniel wins, the tea party’s winning streak will be intact. Since the movement began in 2009, it has vanquished incumbent Republican senators in each of the two primary cycles: Robert Bennett of Utah in 2010 and Richard Lugar of Indiana in 2012.

But neither of those races had the eye-popping developments of Mississippi in 2014. If McDaniel loses, he could well blame the antics of a group of supporters, who allegedly contrived to break into Senator Cochran’s bedridden wife’s nursing home, take photos, and post them online in a video. One supporter, a blogger, was arrested for carrying out the plan; three others, including a prominent Mississippi tea party leader, are charged as conspirators.

Last month, the stunt grabbed national attention, and jolted the race.

“A couple months ago, I believe Cochran supporters were sound asleep. They started waking up, sort of slowly – some of them are probably still asleep – but the arrest deal and nursing home thing really stalled McDaniel and I think really irked the Cochran people,” says Henry Barbour, founder of a pro-Cochran super political action committee.  

“I think it’s a big factor in where we are right now,” Mr. Barbour said Monday. “The question is, will Cochran supporters follow through and show up tomorrow. I don’t think there’s any question that the McDaniel people will get out and vote tomorrow. The question is, are Thad’s people going to get out and vote.”

McDaniel and his campaign have not been linked to the nursing home scheme, though McDaniel did fumble for answers in a radio interview on the incident two weeks ago. More important, the episode knocked McDaniel off his message: that Cochran has been in Washington too long, has gone along with too much federal spending, and should retire.

Tea party activists feel unfairly maligned, and say they still have the ground energy to take out Cochran. But they acknowledge the incident dealt a blow at a crucial moment.

“Not personally knowing any of the players, it was a bad, amateurish mistake,” says Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps tea party activists. “Perhaps that’s the price you pay for nonprofessional activists getting involved in politics.”

But, Kibbe adds, “I would still argue that the bottom-up approach produces more energy and effectiveness than a top-down, talking-points-coming-from-D.C. kind of campaign.”

The nursing-home incident has had another impact: It called attention to Cochran’s relationship with a long-time female aide who accompanies him on official travel. Cochran also rents a basement apartment in the aide’s home in Washington. The Cochran campaign denies that the relationship is inappropriate, and Cochran’s two adult children defend their father. Rose Cochran, who has been diagnosed with advanced dementia, has been in a nursing home in Madison, Miss., since 2001.

Observers of Mississippi politics see other reasons Cochran might survive the McDaniel challenge apart from “Rose-gate.” Start with hurricane Katrina. Cochran fought to secure significant federal money for the Gulf Coast after the storm devastated the region. Early in the campaign, McDaniel stumbled over a reporter’s questions about disaster aid, launching a narrative that perhaps he’ll turn off the spigot of federal money to Mississippi that Cochran is known for.

“McDaniel had a shot at getting some of that vote in the Gulf Coast, but when he did that interview he pretty much shut the vote down,” says Joseph Parker, a retired political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. “I think that probably had more effect on the campaign than the nursing home situation.”

Marvin King, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says his gut tells him Cochran will pull out a win, and that he’s skeptical of the polls.

“Anything is possible, but it would be an upset for McDaniel to win at this point,” says Mr. King. “The other thing to consider is that all of McDaniel’s big money has come from out of state. I haven’t seen the evidence that there’s a true groundswell of localized support.”

Some $8 million has poured into the state from outside groups, including Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which are backing McDaniel. Barbour’s super-PAC, Mississippi Conservatives, and the US Chamber of Commerce have bolstered Cochran.

Cochran also has the backing of virtually the entire Mississippi Republican establishment. McDaniel scored last-minute endorsements from high-profile conservatives, including Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. Some analysts see that as a sign of momentum for McDaniel. But others disagree.

“They’re good Republicans, but they don’t know anything about Mississippi,” says a former Republican elected official, speaking from Jackson, Miss. “They’re here for their own political interests.”

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