The Tea Party has kept its aim on Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) despite a scandal involving his wife and a supporter of his primary opponent — and he could be the first Senate incumbent to fall in Tuesday's marquee contest.
Conservatives’ high hopes for state Sen. Chris McDaniel were deflated early last month, after several supporters were arrested in connection with allegedly photographing Cochran’s infirm wife in her nursing home room. The scandal, and McDaniel’s mishandling of the subsequent fallout, gave the issue legs through the last weeks of the primary.
The bitter contest is the most watched, especially by nervous Republicans, on a day when voters in eight states from coast to coast head to the polls. In Iowa and New Jersey contests, the GOP establishment hopes they land their preferred nominees to improve their chances in competitive November contests. In California, too, the national GOP hopes a polarizing candidates for governor won’t advance and drag other Republicans down with him.
Political observers might not have an answer on Tuesday night, though. A third candidate in the race, Hernando, Miss., real estate agent Thomas Carey, could draw enough of the vote to send the primary to a runoff, if neither Cochran nor McDaniel crack the 50 percent vote threshold.
McDaniel's team believes they'd have the leg up in a runoff, but it's unclear if his campaign would survive the increased pressure. Cochran's campaign, too, would have to grapple with continued scrutiny over the candidate's tendency to dodge the press.
One thing wouldn't change: The race would likely be as nasty as ever.
In the primary, candidates have run ads highlighting the scandal, with Cochran’s team tying McDaniel to three men charged as conspirators in the plot, and McDaniel accusing his opponent of “dirty politics” in his own ad.
Mississippi Republicans say that, while the scandal appears to have increased interest in the race, it’s hard to tell who would ultimately benefit from it.
“I think it’s increased the intensity, at least from the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen on the ground, of supporters on both sides,” Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef told The Hill last week.
And multiple polls over the past few days have confirmed the race is a dead heat.
Even if they don’t get the win on Tuesday night, the persistent closeness of the race, despite McDaniel’s gaffes and error-prone campaign, is a testament to the Tea Party’s appeal in the deep South and to the intensity of the conservative, anti-incumbent sentiment in Mississippi.
But it’s also thanks to Cochran’s own rusty campaign, which got a late start in fundraising and messaging, after he unexpectedly announced plans to run for reelection. He’s drawn negative press for dodging the media and refusing to debate McDaniel, and has kept a relatively sparse campaign schedule throughout the primary.
Cochran has the backing of the state’s party establishment and every statewide elected official. Former Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and two of his nephews are actively supporting Cochran, and many of the state’s most seasoned political operatives are working on his campaign or for groups backing him.
Henry Barbour, a nephew of the former governor and an adviser to a super-PAC boosting Cochran’s campaign, admitted earlier last month that Cochran’s organization “needs to wake up.”
“The McDaniel people are more intense than the Cochran people, but the Cochran people outnumber the McDaniel people,” he told The Hill from behind a cluttered desk in a downtown Jackson high-rise.
Those McDaniel backers even include Henry Barbour’s own father, Jeppie, who has endorsed the challenger.
Outside groups on both sides, seeing an opening, have poured an estimated $7.8 million into the race to sway the outcome, the bulk of it backing McDaniel.
Conservatives are giving the race all they’ve got in the final stretch, with outside groups launching new radio and TV ads for McDaniel and conservative stars former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum headlining rallies for him in the state.
Cochran’s supporters are running radio ads featuring former Sen. Trent Lott (R) and Gov. Phil Bryant (R) endorsing the senator.
Democrats will be watching the primary as well, as they see a potential pickup opportunity if McDaniel makes it through the primary with Childers as their candidate. And Nosef admitted Republicans are concerned about the party’s challenge in coming together after such a divisive campaign.
“Certainly it’s going to be hard [to unify], and people aren’t gonna get on the same page on Wednesday. It’s going to be a process, but I think we’ll work through it,” he said.
Most Republicans acknowledge that, whatever the eventual outcome, the primary has been transformative for Mississippi Republicans, as Kevin Broughton, spokesman for the pro-McDaniel Tea Party Patriots, put it.
“I think the landscape of the Republican Party in Mississippi, no matter the winner on Tuesday, has been altered significantly,” he said.
— This post was updated at 11:14 a.m.