The Tea Party's warning to Republicans: Waver an inch, and we can still beat you

The Tea Party may finally upset an incumbent senator. Why? Because he didn't abandon all "establishment" pretenses

Published June 4, 2014 4:20PM (EDT)

 Sen. Thad Cochran
Sen. Thad Cochran

Things don't look good for poor old Southern gentleman Sen. Thad Cochran in his Mississippi Senate primary. As of this writing, Cochran is trailing his Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel by a couple thousand votes with 99.6% of precincts reporting. And because of a third candidate spoiler -- some guy named Thomas Carey, who's garnered a few thousand votes -- it doesn't appear that the winner will cross the 50% threshold. We're probably headed to a runoff between Cochran and McDaniel in three weeks.

A runoff is likely bad news for Thad Cochran. As NBC News writes, two other incumbents who've been forced into runoffs recently -- Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall, both in Texas -- have eventually lost those races. "In a low-turnout runoff, the smart money is that the Tea Party will be more fired up to head to the polls than Cochran’s backers," they write. And, as Slate's Dave Weigel points out, the Democrats and independents who voted in the primary (and were actively courted by Cochran backers) won't be able to vote in a GOP runoff.

The other dynamic that's been going on for some time, and is just now catching full media attention, is that Thad Cochran doesn't appear to be up for the challenge. He's a six-term incumbent who's never had a primary like this, and it doesn't appear like he knows what the hell he's doing. He's dodged debates, and reporters. He also hasn't been campaigning much, relying instead on the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and other outside "establishment" groups, to do most of the ground-game work for him.

The best national dispatch on Cochran, so far, comes from the Atlantic's Molly Ball. In it, Thad Cochran comes across, frankly, like a confused old man who doesn't really want this or know what's happening at any given time.

Cochran's speech was not so fiery. He shuffled onto the stage and spoke for two and a half minutes to the group of about 100 local people, many of them hospital workers taking a morning break. "Standing out here, I couldn't help but think back to my first days in elected politics," he mused, recalling his old friend Sonny Montgomery, a Democratic member of Congress who has been dead for eight years.

I followed Cochran from the square to a local diner, Jean's Restaurant, where patrons swiveled away from plastic plates of boiled okra and corn fritters to shake his hand. On the wall were two framed photographs of Chris McDaniel. The restaurant's owner, Diane Trammell, told me McDaniel had visited twice and stayed for an hour each time. "I don't recall the last time I seen Thad," she said. She'd always voted for Cochran in the past, but now she wasn't sure.

Cochran didn't pose for any pictures during his brief sweep. As he made his way toward the exit, the senator held out his hand to me. I had met and interviewed him less than half an hour before.

"Hello, how are you doing?" he said with a kindly smile. "I'm Thad Cochran."

The question in GOP circles now is: How much will Cochran, the NRSC, the Chamber of Commerce, and other "establishment" types, want to drag this on? Do they feel like Cochran will have a fighting chance in the runoff, or should they concede now and save resources for the general election? There's a lot of pride at stake here, though, so expect the runoff to continue in just the same nasty vein as the campaign's already been going.

Even if Cochran does somehow manage to pull it off, this has been a great showing for the Tea Party. As election guru Larry Sabato tweets, "Cochran may eke it out but very rare for 6-term senator w/out scandal or health issues to be in nip-and-tuck battle 4 renomination."

Now, to the part you've all been waiting for: What do the results in Mississippi have to say about The Narrative? The precious, precious Narrative! Does this ruin the conventional wisdom about "The Year of the Establishment"? Well, sort of: It adds additional evidence to the fact that "The Year of the Establishment" was a bogus narrative to begin with.

In races where "establishment" candidates have won, or are winning, they've done so by abandoning any pretense that they represented some sort of "establishment" entity. Mitch McConnell, Thom Tillis, Jack Kingston, and so on, have survived so far by leaving no room to their right unoccupied, no space for a "Tea Party" challenger to breathe. They have taken on the identity and ideology of the "Tea Party" themselves. As we've written, Tea Partiers are getting exactly the sort of ideology they want out of the primary process, so who cares whether that person is draped in superficially "establishment" clothes?

Thad Cochran's campaign has been different from those of his fellow establishmentarians. While he's moved to the right rhetorically on issues like immigration reform, he hasn't given up on his chief establishment cred -- as a master appropriator who can bring home the pork for a very poor state like Mississippi. He's been running openly on this record, and on the possibility that he would chair the Senate appropriations committee in the next Congress.

Pork-barrel spending is a heresy among Tea Partiers -- one of the first things congressional Republicans did after the "Tea Party wave" election of 2010 was denounce the use of earmarking. Cochran has rejected that new approach. As Molly Ball writes in her piece, "If Cochran is uniquely vulnerable, it is because he represents the last of a dying breed—the Naive Establishmentarian, a Republican who is unwilling or unable to learn the new folkways of a party that has shifted under his feet."

The Tea Party is winning in Mississippi, just like it's been winning all primary season long. Vulnerable "establishment" figures so far have survived only by camouflaging themselves wholly within the far-right, Tea Party ideology. Thad Cochran has been the lone holdout, and he's being carved up for dinner.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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2014 Elections Chris Mcdaniel Establishment Gop Mississippi Primaries Republicans Senate Tea Party Thad Cochran