The Tea Party went all in for a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi and got beaten by a six-term incumbent who represents much of what it despises.
Republican Thad Cochran yesterday handed the Tea Party its biggest loss this year in a nomination race where outside groups spent more than $11 million trying to sway the outcome in the latest fight between the limited-government movement and pro-business causes.
Helped by blacks and other Democrats who could cross over to participate in the Republican primary runoff, Cochran beat state Senator Chris McDaniel, 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent.
Tea Party-aligned congressional candidates also lost primaries in Oklahoma and New York. That handed the movement a series of setbacks two weeks after its most notable triumph this year, the upset by David Brat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary.
Tea Party groups had looked for a McDaniel win to further energize their candidates in primaries where its clash with pro-business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the Republican Party’s direction is still playing out.
The Mississippi result could check that momentum, including in August contests in which Tea Party-supported candidates are challenging Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas. Cochran’s win may also benefit business-oriented Republicans in House primaries.
The Mississippi runoff was required after nobody won the 50 percent needed to secure the nomination in a June 3 primary that included a third candidate. That race ended with McDaniel leading Cochran by about 1,400 votes.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting today in the Associated Press tally, Cochran led by about 6,700 votes.
McDaniel didn’t concede the race last night and today said he may legally challenge the result, based on alleged “irregularities” that he didn’t specify.
“Our team will look into the irregularities to determine whether a challenge is warranted,” McDaniel said in a statement. “After we’ve examined the data, we will make a decision about whether and how to proceed.”
Turnout exceeded 376,000 for the runoff, up from about 319,000 in the first-round primary. In Hinds County, which includes the state capital of Jackson and where the population is more than two-thirds black, turnout rose 43 percent as Cochran’s vote share grew to 72 percent from 66 percent.
“There is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” McDaniel told his supporters last night. “So much for principle.”
Tea Party-backed candidates have captured just one U.S. Senate nomination this year -- for an open seat in Nebraska -- while losing challenges to House Republican incumbents other than Cantor.
“Overall, the Tea Party has not had a successful primary season,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “The luster is off many national Tea Party organizations as they continued to support some very weak candidates.”
The Tea Party targeted Cochran, 76, for exemplifying much of what it seeks to change in Washington -- longevity in Congress, a willingness to compromise with Democrats, and a perceived softness on reducing the national debt and federal deficit. The fiscal issues are at the movement’s core.
Cochran, a former Appropriations Committee chairman who was first elected to the Senate in 1978, was ranked in 2010 as the top requester of now-banned home-state spending projects known as earmarks by the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste. The group recorded his total that year as $490 million.
In the runoff campaign’s final days, Cochran sought to turn Tea Party criticism of his record into a positive factor. He stressed his history of bringing federally funded projects to his home state, and said he would continue trying to secure benefits that McDaniel would eschew. His message was partially aimed at attracting Democrats to the polls.
“What we have tonight is reflected as a consensus for more and better jobs for Mississippi workers, a military force and the capacity to defend the security interests of the United States,” Cochran told supporters after his win. “We all have a right to be proud of our state tonight.”
McDaniel, 41, was endorsed by Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, as well as Washington-based groups aligned with the movement, including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Madison Project.
The Club for Growth ran 3,854 TV spots through June 23 to try to boost McDaniel, data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG shows, potentially draining its resources for other races.
McDaniel in his campaigning spotlighted his commitment to Tea Party goals and the need for Mississippi to have a fresh voice in Washington.
In his comments last night, McDaniel alleged that there were “dozens of irregularities reported” at various precincts.
“Now it’s our job to make sure that the sanctity of the vote is upheld,” he said. “Before this race ends, we have to be absolutely certain that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”
Cochran’s supporters included Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. McCain stumped for his colleague during the campaign’s final weekend, as the two men tried to rally voters with military ties.
The Chicago-based National Association of Realtors also backed Cochran with TV ads. Joe Sanderson, chairman and chief executive officer of Laurel, Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms, which employs about 6,000 people in the state, was his finance chairman.
Also aiding Cochran just days before the vote was a television ad paid for by the Chamber of Commerce that featured his endorsement by Brett Favre, the retired National Football League quarterback and Mississippi native.
Tea Party leaders decried Cochran’s win and those who rallied to his side.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, called it “disgraceful” that McCain, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Republican Senatorial Committee “would champion a campaign platform of pork-barrel spending and insider deal-making, while recruiting Democrats to show up at the polls.”
Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist, termed the outcome “an important win” for the party “and a rebuke for the professional conservative groups who have hijacked the Tea Party movement for their own benefit.”
“Republicans have a tremendous opportunity to win back the Senate in November, so, hopefully, the focus will now return to that,” Walsh said.
Cochran will be heavily favored to defeat Democrat Travis Childers, a former U.S. House member, in November’s general election in a state that 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried by more than 11 percentage points. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win a U.S. Senate majority.
Also yesterday, U.S. Representative James Lankford beat former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon in Oklahoma’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Tom Coburn, who’s resigning in January. Shannon was backed by national Republican figures aligned with the Tea Party.
Lankford, who previously directed a Christian youth camp, was elected to his House seat in 2010 and has become part of the House Republican leadership.
In New York’s 22nd District, U.S. Representative Richard Hanna won nomination for a third term in his state’s Republican primary, defeating Tea Party-aligned state Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney.
Hanna’s supporters included a super-political action committee that encourages Republicans to support gay marriage that was founded with the help of billionaire Paul Singer, who leads New York-based investment firm Elliott Management Corp.