If Chris McDaniel on Tuesday knocks off Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), national Democrats will have a rare offensive opportunity in the Deep South.
The nasty, divisive primary fight comes to a close in tonight’s runoff election, but it’s unclear whether Mississippi Republicans can heal the wounds the primary has caused.
Democrats are gleeful that those divisions could open the door for their nominee, centrist former Rep. Travis Childers, to woo disaffected Cochran supporters. That new math could complicate the GOP calculus for the six seats the party needs to flip Senate control.
But a McDaniel victory would also embolden national Tea Party groups who have spent heavily on his behalf. They say if the once-underdog state senator is successful in knocking off the 36-year incumbent, he could have a ripple effect for other long-shot conservative primary challengers.
“If Chris McDaniel is able to win, he will breathe life into several more primaries coming up,” said David Bossie, president of Citizens United. His group backed McDaniel, but now it’s eyeing upcoming Senate primaries in Tennessee and Kansas with a new hope against other longtime incumbents.
Cochran’s team and the GOP establishment have taken aggressive — and at times unusual — steps to prevent that outcome.
The senator revamped his message, emphasizing the benefits he’s brought to the state through his appropriations work that’s usually anathema to fiscal conservatives.
Outside groups spent millions of dollars on behalf of both candidates — $3.3 million during the runoff alone, and $11.4 million total during the primary, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center.
McDaniel benefitted from the bulk of that, with outside groups spending $3.1 million more overall on McDaniel than outside groups spent on Cochran.
And after finishing behind McDaniel by around 1,400 votes three weeks ago, Cochran’s team is now reaching out to African-Americans and Democrats to expand his share of the vote in the runoff.
There’s a chance the pitch for Democratic voters could backfire, if Republicans see the effort, as the Club for Growth put it in an attack ad, as an attempt to “hijack” the GOP primary.
The race has featured numerous scandals and gaffes that are all but certain to carry over into the general election, leaving neither GOP candidate without baggage in the fall.
McDaniel has been dogged by multiple scandals, including the arrest of several supporters related to the alleged break-in at a nursing home to take photos of Cochran’s wife for a political attack on the senator. And after the June 3 primary, McDaniel supporters and a staffer were found locked inside a courthouse on primary night along with counted primary ballots.
Cochran has faced scandals of his own, however. On Monday, a Cochran campaign staffer was reportedly arrested after being accused of stealing campaign signs supportive of McDaniel, and lingering questions remain over whether his push to attract Democratic voters in the runoff may violate Mississippi election law.
Democrats are more optimistic about their chances against McDaniel because of the controversial comments he made as a talk-radio host and what they see as an inept campaign.
For them, much of the message being pushed by Cochran and his allies, hammering McDaniel for the multiple scandals that dogged his campaign and as an uncompromising extremist, will easily translate to the general election.
Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole said he was already on a conference call Monday afternoon with the Childers campaign and a handful of surrogates planning their next steps.
He said Democrats will engage in a “full-court press on fundraising” and is developing a contrast message between Childers and McDaniel already.
“We’re going to be very aggressive on developing a message — that will in large part dovetail into at least some of Cochran’s runoff message — which will create a distinction between Travis and McDaniel as Travis being the reasonable, common-sense businessman who’s willing to work with everybody to make Mississippi a better place, versus a very radical, extreme, aggressive young lawyer who’s willing to pick a fight with anyone he can, including people in his own party,” Cole said.
Cochran has, however, taken some hits of his own, largely related to his age and mental acuity, after he seemed disoriented in multiple press interviews throughout the campaign.
The fundamentals of the deep-red state favor the GOP, and Republicans have dismissed the idea that Democrats can make it competitive regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.
But Democrats are gearing up for the fight. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has sent advisers to help Childers prepare for the general election and improve his fundraising.
And there’s a concern among many in the state GOP that the establishment and conservative wings of the party will have trouble unifying behind the eventual nominee, complicating their chances in the general.
Prior to the initial primary, Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef said party unity was a main issue.
“To be honest, I think party unity’s gonna be just as much a concern either way the election comes out, for sure,” Nosef said.
After three more weeks of a contentious back and forth, that concern has likely grown, especially because national Republicans have not yet indicated whether they’ll come to McDaniel’s aid.
National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman Jerry Moran (Kan.) has been all over the map when it comes to whether the committee would back a potential McDaniel candidacy. He initially dodged the question, and then backtracked, telling The Hill after the first round of voting that the committee would back McDaniel, though it would be easier to win if Cochran were renominated.
On Monday, NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring declined to clarify where the committee stands on McDaniel or answer any questions at all about its post-runoff plans.
But the committee was still pouring money into the race to boost Cochran as late as Friday, spending $175,000 on get-out-the-vote calls for the senator last week.
Conservative groups that backed McDaniel in the primary say they will come to his rescue if he needs it, but they would rather turn their attention elsewhere.
“We would be looking at Mississippi just like we look at every other race in the country, both statewide and in the congressional districts — looking at where we can make the greatest impact with our hard dollars,” Bossie said. “So come late August, September, we’re going to be evaluating every race.
“If it looks like Chris McDaniel needs support, we’re gonna be there in every way, shape and form,” he added.