WASHINGTON — Courtly Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran was thought to be the tea party’s last best chance to take down a member of the Republican establishment, but neither Cochran nor his tea party challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, had enough votes to win outright during their recent primary election. Meanwhile, all that was turned on its head when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was upset by unknown, underfinanced tea party challenger David Brat in Tuesday’s Virginia primary.
Sitting congressional leaders have lost general elections — House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., in 1994 and Minority Leader and sometime Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in 2004 come to mind — but to lose in a primary is unique.
Now, the next three weeks will decide the outcome of the Cochran-McDaniel race, with the 76-year-old Cochran the underdog. It is not where he expected to be after six terms in the U.S. Senate and bringing home countless federal projects for his state.
Cochran faces a formidable rival in state senator and former conservative radio talk show host McDaniel, who is everything the dignified and soft-spoken senior senator is not. McDaniel is bombastic, boastful and hard charging, and he doesn’t think much of all that pork Cochran brought to Mississippi. To heck with the federal government is McDaniel’s core message, Mississippi can go it alone and lead the way for the rest of the country.
Someone should tell McDaniel that half his state’s revenue comes from federal grants, and for every dollar Mississippi taxpayers send to Washington, they get back $3.07. So who’s the loser if McDaniel managed to make good on his Tea Party rhetoric and cut Mississippi loose from the alleged tyranny of Washington? But tea party true believers are all about balanced-budget ideology – mindlessly equating a national budget to a personal budget – even if it hurts their own states. And it is an ideology that McDaniel may ride all the way to Washington.
His supporters are more fervent than Cochran’s, and now that they see victory in their grasp, they’ll likely turn out in force. Cochran made a number of errors. He, like Cantor with Brat, took too long to realize that McDaniel posed a serious challenge, and he, like Cantor, relied on the good sense of the voters to reelect him in gratitude for all he had done for the state, including federal contracts for defense projects that create much needed jobs.
His fatal error may have occurred just three days before the voting when on May 31st he posted a tweet that praised the release of Sgt. Beau Bergdahl, who apparently deserted. In the days following, as the backlash mounted over Bergdahl and the prisoner exchange of five high-ranking Taliban figures that freed him, the tweet was taken down. But enough people saw it that it could well doom Cochran’s chance of overtaking McDaniel in the runoff.
But the tea party doesn’t have to win the battles to win the war. They’ve already scared the GOP establishment into adopting their positions and packaging them in less inflammatory rhetoric. The tea party has already achieved several of its major goals: starving the federal budget, dismissing climate change as a hoax and refusing to fix the broken immigration system, all of which are now bedrock policies of the Republican Party.