The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 21

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Did conservatives accomplish anything in Mississippi?
  • Georgia runoff next big Senate primary

Senate 2014

The Empire Strikes Back: So, what to make of last week’s establishment victory in Mississippi? By appealing to Democrats to vote in the open GOP primary for Senate, state and national GOP regulars defeated Tea Party insurgents. The establishment struck back and won in an exceedingly high-turnout runoff.

After his surprising and narrow loss in round one, Sen. Cochran, R-Miss., appeared to have one foot in the political grave and the other on a banana peel. Instead, he climbed back out and defeated his conservative challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R.

McDaniel has refused to concede and is currently pursuing the fantasy that the result will be overturned. Others are taking stock of what just happened. Conservatives are bitter that Democrats tipped the balance in their primary — and they may have a new reason, in Mississippi and elsewhere, to close GOP primaries by law in the future. The media, which had already declared the Tea Party dead earlier, can hardly say it’s dead again — they’d have a hard case to make after the recent surprise defeat former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

But what is up with the Tea Party, anyway? Is it really dead again? Surely it does not hinge on McDaniel’s lost cause, as McDaniel himself implied in his non-concession speech. What are the real lessons here?

To put things in perspective, McDaniel wasn’t given much credit when he first entered the race, so in the big picture, his relative success is the real surprise. We described this race as the premiere opportunity for Tea Partiers to take an incumbent’s scalp this cycle, but the media largely ignored this race in favor of the Kentucky Senate primary. That one seemed more interesting because the Senate GOP leader’s career was at stake — never mind that the challenge was an amateur one.

The Mississippi race always had more potential — a weaker (and less conservative) incumbent and a much stronger challenger. But the fact that this was a race at all came as a surprise to conventional thinking. Little consolation for conservatives, perhaps, but it is nonetheless significant in the long run. The party establishment is celebrating Cochran’s victory, but the glee only hides their relief. They are not spoiling to repeat this experience. Nothing is more irritating to party bosses than constantly bailing out drowning politicians — they’d sooner find someone who can swim next time. And in the long run, this is working in conservatives’ favor. As with horseshoes and hand grenades, his is a case where close actually does count for something.

Conservatives would rather have a win under their belt, obviously, but Cochran’s near-loss in Mississippi illustrates an easily overlooked point of this sort of conservative primary challenge. When these can be made into real races, as in this case, conservatives become more powerful in either victory or defeat. A near-loss like Cochran’s serves as a deterrent to establishment resistance against conservatives across the board. As with the actual scalps taken in years past, this race will result in other incumbents being more responsive to their base voters. It will also open doors to conservatives (thought probably not to McDaniel himself) in the future, both in Mississippi and elsewhere. This is how Pat Toomey, after just narrowly losing to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., in 2004, was able to seize the GOP nomination six years later without facing any serious opposition.

One could say the same of many other candidates from 2010, 2012, and this year as well. Think of it as a policy of peace through strength. The Senate GOP caucus has become markedly more conservative over the years precisely because the party apparatus would sooner avoid this sort of fight than engage it — that is is no longer in their self-interest to pick such fights seems clear at this point.

In many of this year’s competitive Senate races where there is no incumbent Republican (Colorado, Montana, Georgia, Alaska, Iowa), sound candidates have been found and endorsed on all sides who have kept everyone happy, from the ultras to the Chamber of Commerce. This certainly hasn’t been the case everywhere (Nebraska and North Carolina both offer counterexamples) but generally, deterrence is having an effect.

Oklahoma: The other big primary last Tuesday took place in the Sooner State. This one was a lot harder to identify as a simple Tea Party versus establishment race, as we’ve noted here previously, because the state and national establishments were represented on opposite sides, as were the local and national segments of the Tea Party. And frankly, both candidates were solidly conservative.

In the end, Rep. James Lankford outperformed the polls and won outright over former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon. That’s something Lankford is accustomed to doing. In 2010, it came as quite a shock when he made the runoff for his House seat, then upset the favorite to win the GOP nomination. His role as leader of the nation’s largest Christian youth camp is usually credited for his uniquely strong base of support, which is full of first-time voters. Or at least, this is the best explanation available for his success. He will replace Sen. Tom Coburn this fall after the formality of a November election. Although Coburn did not endorse in this race, he defended Lankford from some of the attacks that were launched against him, and that was almost as good as the real thing.

The involvement of national figures and Tea Party groups on Shannon’s behalf may have been the result of a late desire to improve scorecards by backing a few likely winners. If so, big mistake. But in the Senate, Lankford is more likely to resemble Coburn than he is Thad Cochran, so Tea Partiers needn’t fret over a second major defeat.

Georgia: The next big GOP Senate contest takes place July 22, when Rep. Jack Kingston faces a runoff against businessman David Perdue. Both would begin with narrow leads over the Democratic nominee, Michelle Nunn. But as hinted above, all important factions — including prominent conservatives who backed Karen Handel originally, the NRA, and the Chamber of Commerce — have coalesced around Kingston as the consensus nominee.

Although Perdue has produced an internal poll to the contrary, independent polling has Kingston well ahead, and there’s every reason to think he will win. Perdue’s comments about Handel’s educational attainment during the first round may have been a short-lived scandal in itself, but it should raise a few red flags for Republicans as they seek out a strong nominee against a female general election opponent. Anyone who can say something that dumb and out of touch has at least the potential to become the next Todd Akin.