The GOP establishment strikes back

Three weeks after the tea party claimed its biggest victory to date--the stunning defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor--the GOP establishment fought back valiantly and aggressively to score a narrow victory in Mississippi's Primary runoff. Establishment conservative and six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran bested an angry tea party challenger, State Sen. Chris McDaniel. The very nasty and bruising ordeal is just another illustration that the GOP civil war is in full swing.

However, the GOP establishment came out swinging. It poured millions of dollars into the race. But perhaps the most successful, albeit controversial effort going forward was Thad Cochran’s aggressive courting of Democrats and African-Americans in particular to support his effort. Based on the returns it appears those efforts paid huge dividends as turnout was much higher than three weeks ago especially in predominantly black precincts. He made inroads in the Mississippi Delta, an African-American and Democratic stronghold in the Magnolia State.

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The numbers tell the story. For example in Hinds County, home to the state capital city of Jackson, with its heavy black population and Jackson State University, a historically black university, Cochran’s vote surged from 10,928 in the Primary to 17,927 in the runoff.

This scenario was echoed around the state in heavily Democratic areas; principally because Cochran, for once in his long career, actually asked for their votes. He met with dozens of black ministers who agreed he was the lesser of the two evils, and that he Cochran had a record of supporting their issues, though he was a Republican.

Not only was this strategy the difference in the race—a race that was decided by fewer than 8,000 votes—but outreach to Democrats and African Americans has rankled McDaniel and his tea party supporters, who have a history of being insensitive at best towards voters of color. Tea Party grand dame, Sara Palin, was blistering in her critique referring to Cochran’s outreach of Democrats and African Americans as “shenanigans.” But might Cochran’s outreach across the aisle be the blueprint that leads the GOP to victory in statewide and national races?

From 1980, the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over incumbent President Jimmy Carter, through 2012, the percentage of the white vote nationally has fallen nearly 20 points. In a party that's overly reliant on white voters, demographics have shown this rapidly dwindling base of voters simply is not enough to secure victory. If the GOP is to remain competitive, outreach with voters it is not used to engaging, including women, African Americans and Latinos, is critical.

This protracted duel between the tea party—whose support places an even greater emphasis on this diminishing voting bloc—and the GOP establishment which recognizes the inherent need to expand and broaden the base, could serve as the death knell if the tea party is successful in pulling the Republicans further to the right. 

The loss is undoubtedly a stinging defeat for the tea party. National tea party groups were riding a wave of momentum in the wake of Rep. Eric Cantor's upset at the hands of tea party upstart David Bratt. McDaniel’s loss, combined with several tea party defeats this season in North Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and New York suggest the tea party might be diminishing in power and influence. As further evidence, Bratt’s victory in Virginia over Cantor came without the support of any outside tea-party groups. What’s more, Bratt was outspent by Cantor’s team by more than 10-to-1, suggesting that Cantor's demise was more akin to voter dissatisfaction than tea-party support or messaging.

However, despite a string of defeats the tea party is unwilling to back down or give way to the GOP establishment. Not surprising, a defiant McDaniel refused to concede, even after it was clear he had lost. Mississippi law doesn’t allow for recounts, so McDaniel could ponder a court challenge of some sort. Palin, clearly dejected after the defeat said: “if Republicans aren’t going to stand strong on the planks in our platform, then it does no good to get all enthused about them anymore.”

What's for sure is the tea party, while lacking the firepower at the polls, is very much fired up and angling for a fight. The problem is, it is fighting its own party, and as this GOP civil war rages on, the fatalities will only keep adding up.

Ham is a national political analyst and author of the bestselling book: THE GOP CIVIL WAR: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party.