Is Mississippi Proof the Tea Party Can Still Cannibalize the GOP?

The task of the Republican Party may be the most compelling story of the primary races. Democratic candidates will be fighting against a string of scandals that have hurt President Barack Obama’s approval rating in recent months, from the Internal Revenue Service targeting controversy to the Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal to the Bergdahl exchange. Democrats must also contend with the public’s dismay over the faulty launch of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges and the broad negative opinion with which the American people view the healthcare reform.

Republicans have their own image problem, and the party is looking to pick up enough seats to gain a Senate majority. For the coming election season, both financing and rebranding will key for the GOP. With a number of key issues resting in the hands of Congress — the future of the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, the economic recovery, and minimum wage — and the given the ability of the coming election to drastically change the makeup of Congress, Tuesday’s primaries provide a key glimpse into the future.

Leading up to the primaries, it was largely expected that the Republican Party would lose its Tea Party fringe, with establishment Republicans in less danger of an upset than in the previous two elections. But as the primaries progress, it will be important to consider this question: Has the Republican Party has learned how not to shoot itself in the foot?

The Mississippi primary was another exercise in party infighting, as many Republican primary contests have been. Before voters went to the polls, political analysts saw the Mississippi election as the best opportunity for the Tea Party to edge out a Republican incumbent. That race turned out to so tight that Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran are heading to a June 24 runoff. That runoff has the presented problems for the broader Republican Party, with the harsh campaigning sure to follow having the potential to damage the image of the eventual nominee. And that drawn-out race could hurt the Republican Party’s ability to hold on to that Mississippi Senate seat.

To some political commentators, the point of interest in that election was the fact that both candidates had such significant failings that neither of them could be considered important to the future of the Republican Party. The incumbent six-term Cochran has been heavily criticized for his voting record on federal spending and for being too soft on Obama. Worries about the 76-year-old lawmaker’s age have been raised, as well. By comparison, his Tea Party rival, McDaniel —  a former radio host who is attempting to model himself as the next Ted Cruz – is seen by many voters an opportunist and out of touch with the state’s needs.

Others have argued that Cochran has only himself to blame for failing to win the primary. He earned a reputation as a Senate appropriator during his many years in Congress, and that made Cochran vulnerable to a Tea Party challenge. Had he retired, the Mississippi primary could have seen a much broader field of candidates and, therefore, the possibility of stronger candidate. But since Mississippi is facing a runoff election between Cochran and McDaniel, the race becomes an important election case study. It may not be a final judgement on the Tea Party, but the runoff will highlight the bitter fight between two less-than-popular candidates, which could help a Democrat win the seat.

The question is where the runoff election will leave Mississippi and the GOP. While the state strongly leans to the conservative side of the political spectrum, if McDaniel wins the runoff, it is not likely that he will secure an easy win over Democrat and former Rep. Travis Childers. As Politico reports, private Democrat polling shows that the party’s nominee would began a general election statistically tied with McDaniel, an ideological activist with a long list of incendiary comments. By comparison, Cochran is well-liked by both independent and Democrat voters in the state.

Mississippi’s runoff election tells an important counter-narrative to the story of the Tea Party’s decline. The popularity of McDaniel among national conservative groups that contributed heavily to his campaign shows that predictions for the Tea Party’s demise may have been uttered too soon. However, it is true that the conservative wing of the GOP began the primaries with a number of losses.

Earlier in the election season, it appeared that the establishment wing of the Republican Party had taken significant strides toward neutralizing the Tea Party faction in the hopes of winning enough seats in November’s midterms to gain the Senate majority. Six high-stakes primary elections took place on May 20, making it one of the biggest and most important political contests leading up to November’s congressional midterms.

Kentucky’s renomination of Mitch McConnell – the Senate minority leader — set the tone for the day’s primary elections. For the first time since he was first elected in 1984, McConnell faced a well-financed Republican primary opponent. But contrary to early political analysis, which saw the senator as vulnerable to a conservative challenge, his victory over businessman Matt Bevin came easy. That win sets up his race against Democrat nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, a contest that is expected to be not only the most costly Senate battle of the year but also the most difficult electoral fight of McConnell’s career.

It’s important to note that McConnell did not entirely eschew the Tea Party element in his campaign – he consulted fellow Kentucky senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul and hired a campaign manager with Tea Party credentials. But now, he will both have to create political distance from that faction of the Republican Party and “at the same time try to demonstrate that he embraces some of their key issues,” Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kentucky, told USA Today.

While the elections on May 20 should not be framed as the victory of big business over a faction of the GOP, the role business played in the primaries should not be ignored. The U.S. Chamber of Congress backed McConnell as well as successful candidates in Georgia, Idaho, Oregon, and Pennsylvania; and the National Realtors Association and the National Retail Federation played a role in the renomination of Republican Rep. Mike Simpson in Idaho.

“When the establishment runs on our issues, it’s clear that there is a larger cultural shift happening here,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks for America, a grassroots organization allied with the Tea Party. “Constitutional conservatives and libertarians are setting the agenda in the Republican Party,” he argued. In Kibbe’s opinion, “Matt Bevin’s principled challenge helped Senator McConnell rediscover his conservative principles come November,” meaning that the incumbent lawmaker had to embrace, at least to a small degree, some Tea Party goals in order to win over its constituency.

This coming week, South Carolina will see a Republican primary election for the Senate, while Maine and Virginia voters will cast their ballots in House primaries.

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