Mississippi Tea Partiers Vow Fight

“Our whole goal is to flip the system,” says a Tea Party activist about the intra-party battle.
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Cheramie Bills is on a mission to uproot Mississippi’s Republican establishment. “When I say the GOP in this state will be replaced, it will be replaced, one person at a time,” Bills says, leaning across the table at the Drip Drop Coffee Shop in Richland, Miss., just outside Jackson, the state capital. “From supervisors to city mayors to everyone.” 

The first replacement Bills and other conservative activists would like to see is the occupant of one of Mississippi’s U.S. Senate seats. The battle is ferocious, unforgiving, and, if Bills gets her way, historic. On one side is Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party candidate whom she supports; on the other, incumbent GOP Senator Thad Cochran, who’s held the post since 1978 and is the state’s Republican patriarch. 

Cochran is just the frontman for Mississippi’s real power broker, former Governor Haley Barbour, who’s been a political force for the past two decades. The whole Barbour clan is in the business: One of his nephews, Austin, helped run Cochran’s campaign, while another, Henry, ran a pro-Cochran super PAC. The Barbours are the problem, in Bills’s eyes. “Our whole goal is to flip the system,” she says. 

McDaniel has gone to court to try to do just that. On June 3, McDaniel, a state Republican lawmaker and former radio host, finished narrowly ahead of Cochran in a three-way primary field. Three weeks later, Cochran beat McDaniel in the runoff by 7,723 votes. The Tea Partier challenged the results and is due to have his appeal heard by the Mississippi Supreme Court on Oct. 2, just weeks before the November midterms. In a statement, lawyers for Cochran called McDaniel’s challenge “baseless.”

Cochran’s runoff victory was controversial. Henry Barbour’s super PAC gave money to groups that recruited black Democrats to vote for Cochran under Mississippi’s open primary rules. Cochran supporters say recruiting black Democratic voters to their side was a legitimate political tactic in a tightly contested election. “It was the obvious thing to do,” says Brad White, a strategist who ran Cochran’s turnout operation in the runoff.

In his appeal, McDaniel claims some voters participated in the Democratic primary and then illegally cast votes in the Republican runoff. Other irregularities alleged in the lawsuit include vote buying, unsecured ballot boxes, and improperly handled absentee ballots. After the runoff, Bills sent the McDaniel team screen shots of Facebook (FB) messages posted by self-proclaimed Democrats bragging about casting votes for Cochran.

Bills isn’t waiting for the judges to decide the future of her state’s Republican Party. She’s working with the Conservative Coalition of Mississippi, which plans to start clubs in 82 counties with the goal of identifying conservative candidates to run in next year’s state elections. The group says it has 2,000 members and has recruited activists to lead chapters in 40 counties. McDaniel spoke recently at a meeting in Rankin County, where he lost by 1,529 votes. 

To conservative activists, the primary and its aftermath offered proof of the deep cynicism and self-dealing of Mississippi’s Republican machine. “It makes me sick to my stomach,” Bills says. “I want term limits. I want closed primaries. And I want a recall.”

The bottom line: Mississippi’s Tea Party Senate candidate is still contesting his defeat at the hands of the Republican establishment.