Tea Party's night of anxiety: What's at stake in the Mississippi runoff

Sen. Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel face off, again, tonight. There's an awful lot riding on the result

Published June 24, 2014 3:05PM (EDT)

Thad Cochran, Chris McDaniel            (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)
Thad Cochran, Chris McDaniel (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

Let's consider a couple of scenarios before tonight's much-hyped runoff conclusion to the weird 2014 Mississippi GOP Senate primary.

In the first, state Sen. and Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel completes the dethroning of incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran. The Cochran campaign's strategy of appealing to his seniority, ability to steer appropriations to constituents, and the African-American vote doesn't go anywhere; the few polls of Republican voters leading up to the race turn out to be on the money. Cochran and his many establishment backers -- the Mississippi delegation, his colleagues in the Senate, the Chamber of Commerce -- are rejected. Massive outlays from national Tea Party groups like Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth are vindicated as they've finally picked off an incumbent senator in the 2014 primary season. All it takes is one each cycle to scare the remaining sitting senators into leaving no room to their right and avoiding compromise on any and all issues. The GOP senators up for reelection in 2016 begin their multi-year process of girding for primary challenges, while the national Tea Party groups continue successfully soliciting big donations and paying themselves six-figure salaries.

On the other hand, suppose wily old Thad pulls it off and secures himself a seventh term. (Because if Cochran wins the primary, he's almost certainly going to win the general. That's not necessarily the case if McDaniel wins.) He's able to convince a significant portion of African-American Democrats that voting in a Republican primary, for a candidate who eliminates the Democrats' outside chance of a pickup in November, is in their best interests -- not an easy sell -- and the crossover vote fills the gap between him and McDaniel in the polls. He wins what by now has ballooned into the marquee "Tea Party vs. Establishment" race of the cycle. The national Tea Party groups, after a fruitless Senate primary cycle, are delivered their most painful blow yet. Not only have they lost another race, but they've done so in a way that makes a Republican incumbent responsive to a more left-leaning coalition.

This is a big-deal election, reader. That's why we keep prattling on about these awful people.

We're split. Our more ignoble and typically dominant side hopes that the Tea Party gets its win and the hilarious spectacle of GOP senators moving awkwardly to the right-most pole during election years continues, as ever. Our more responsible "caring about the health of the nation side" would like to see Cochran pull it off, because screw these big Tea Party groups. Let's see them buried, or at least buried-ish.

And oh, are these big Tea Party groups aware as ever about what's at stake. Would anything be more delicious than seeing Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots, spend all this time and money in Mississippi and then lose to spacey 76-year-old Thad Cochran? The Washington Post's Ben Terris profiled the frantic Martin the other day:

In from Georgia, Martin has been spending much of the past three weeks in the state, holding conferences, making fundraising calls, meeting with local chapters of the tea party, and yes, walking door-to-door to turn out the vote for conservative Senate hopeful Chris McDaniel. But unlike most volunteers here, as the head of the national Tea Party Patriots, a group she co-founded and helped bring to national prominence, she’s on track to make $450,000 this year doing all this, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports and Internal Revenue Service filings. And to top that off, the group’s latest disclosures also note that she is allowed to travel first-class on any domestic flight she takes as president of the organization — although her lawyer says she doesn’t take advantage of the perk.

So, clad in what looks like a black tennis outfit, with a pair of oversized sunglasses crowning her long straight hair and a week out from the runoff primary election between McDaniel and incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, Martin wants more than to hit 10,000 steps a day: She’s trying to prove her worth.

The profile goes on to note how Martin's Tea Party Patriots and the other national groups completely missed out on the biggest upset of the decade earlier this month: David Brat's defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia's 7th District. (They'd attempt to jump on the bandwagon afterward.)

The Cantor defeat ramped up the pressure on Martin and others to produce. If they can't pull off a victory in Mississippi tonight, tensions between Tea Partyers could reach a new high, and someone might have to take a pay cut to her $450,000 salary. Because if the big groups can't take out an old incumbent in Mississippi, whereas local grass-roots activists can take out an Eric Cantor without any of the big groups' help, what, precisely, is the purpose of the big groups? If an upset of an incumbent is desired down the road, maybe the local outfits are better off doing it on their own and not relying on out-of-touch elitist Tea Partyers like Jenny Beth Martin.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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