Former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) says Mississippi Republicans may need a regime change after the damaging primary fight between Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
“This has shown the fissures that are there and I do think the party leaders — it may cause the need for some change in the party leadership,” Lott, now the co-chairman of Squire Patton Boggs's public policy practice, told The Hill during a wide-ranging interview at the firm's Washington office.
“If they try to just stuff 'em or stiff 'em, and don't realize that there's a lesson to be learned there, it could be a problem,” said Lott, a former Senate majority leader.
Cochran pulled a slim victory in his primary runoff, but McDaniel has yet to concede.
McDaniel and his allies have accused Cochran of “stealing” the nomination, in part by courting African-American Democrats to turn out for the senator. They’ve spent the past month poring over poll books in search of illegitimate votes.
His campaign says it's found enough to challenge the runoff result in court and force a special election do-over of the race. But so far, it hasn't actually filed a challenge and McDaniel has yet to provide concrete evidence for his claims.
The state GOP executive committee ratified the results of the runoff, which gave Cochran a 7,667-vote lead, earlier this month, and party Chairman Joe Nosef has repeatedly said Mississippi Republicans are now focused on November.
Some Republicans argue that ignoring McDaniel is the best strategy, as that would allow the party to focus on the general election, where Cochran will be the favorite.
Nosef said that while it’s the party’s “responsibility” to make sure “everyone’s rights are protected,” he’s proud of how the issue has been handled.
“At this point we have the dual responsibility of making sure everyone's rights are protected as far as any runoff issues, while at the same time preparing for the general election in November,” Nosef said in an email to The Hill.
Lott said he didn’t believe McDaniel’s refusal to quit would jeopardize the GOP’s hold on the seat, but that it “has created some problems internally, within the party in the state.”
“I’ve already talked to some of the leaders that I worked with over the years about how do we deal with that. There is a little bit of a rupture there,” he added.
Lott said prior to this race he hadn’t seen the Tea Party as a threat, or even separate from the Republican Party in the state.
“My answer to it when people would ask me about it was, we don't have a problem with the Tea Party, we are the Tea Party, philosophically,” he said.
But now, the former senator says Republicans in Mississippi “need to step up and reach out.”
While he credited Gov. Phil Bryant (R) for acting as a conduit between the Tea Party and establishment wings in the state, he said more could be done to build bridges.
“We have to acknowledge that [the primary fight] has caused a rift, and we've got [to find] a bigger way to deal with it,” Lott added.
He was active in the primary on Cochran’s behalf, endorsing him and appearing in ads for the senator.
Lott left the Senate before the Tea Party’s rise and in many ways seems like the kind of establishment figure who would be a target of the grassroots movement.
Yet the business-friendly Lott who went on to a lucrative K Street career said he “always felt a certain kinship to the Tea Party.”
Lott said a Tea Party challenge could’ve happened to him if he were in office.
“I also have asked myself — after what I saw happen in Mississippi this very year — would I have that kind of challenge? Because I had been accused as someone who would make a deal, or [be] willing to compromise to get a result.
“Times are so different. I don't know how I would do, but I do know one thing: They'd have to take me out, because I'd sure go down swinging,” he said.