JACKSON — The Mississippi Republican Party will need to mend rifts within its own ranks after a bitter primary between six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and a tea party-backed challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Cochran won a primary runoff last week, but McDaniel’s ability to collect 49 percent against a longtime incumbent could embolden other tea party Republicans hoping to pull off an upset in the 2015 elections for governor and other statewide offices.
Every statewide GOP elected official endorsed Cochran. Now, they’ll have to make nice with voters who are energized by their distrust of government.
Appealing to the McDaniel supporters won’t be a big leap for Gov. Phil Bryant, who already calls himself Mississippi’s first tea party governor.
The person most vulnerable could be Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has butted heads with McDaniel and others in the Senate Conservative Coalition, which has about 10 members. Reeves could face a 2015 challenge from a tea party candidate — including, potentially, one of McDaniel’s allies, Republican state Sen. Michael Watson of Pascagoula.
However, national groups that pumped millions into supporting McDaniel have little incentive to put that kind of money into state government elections, said Marvin King, a University of Mississippi political science professor.
“Why would they?” King said. “Given what the Republican Party did in the last legislative session, I have a hard time finding there would be a substantive policy difference in the state Legislature. If you’re an outside group why spend millions when you’re already going to get 95 percent of what you want?”
In the November general election, Cochran, of Oxford, faces the Democratic former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville; and a Reform Party candidate who has run unsuccessfully for several statewide offices since 1991, Shawn O’Hara of Hattiesburg.
Mississippi is a tough state for Democrats, but Childers said he doesn’t expect the general election campaign to be as rancorous as the Republican primary. He said last week that he hopes to draw support from independents and even Republicans who know his service in Congress as a conservative Blue Dog Democrat.
“They know that I will work across the aisle to try to get things done,” Childers said. “They know that I’m not a flame thrower, and they know that I’m reasonable. I’ve never been called a radical in my life, and I work hard.”
Childers went to Congress from north Mississippi’s 1st District after winning a special election in mid-2008. He won a full, two-year term that fall, then lost to Republican Alan Nunnelee in a GOP sweep of 2010. Childers said he’d like to debate Cochran once in each of the four congressional districts. Cochran did not debate McDaniel.
Mississippi hasn’t had a Democrat in the U.S. Senate since 1989, when John C. Stennis retired after 42 years in office.
Cochran went to the Senate in 1978, after six years in the House. As former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he has campaigned on delivering billions of dollars to one of the poorest states in the nation. That strategy is likely to continue in the general election.
McDaniel consistently said Cochran had helped pile up trillions of dollars of debt for projects in other states, including an infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. State Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, a Cochran supporter, dismissed that criticism, pointing to the billions of dollars Cochran brought to Mississippi for recovery after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Nobody is for a bridge to nowhere,” Fillingane said. “But a bridge over Biloxi Bay or the Bay of St. Louis? People are appreciative of that.”