A Mississippi Republican primary race that became a proxy battle for a larger internal struggle over the party’s future will go to another round, with a veteran U.S. senator facing a Tea Party-aligned challenger in a June 24 runoff.
By forcing a runoff with Senator Thad Cochran, Chris McDaniel breathed new life into a Tea Party movement that had mostly been contained this year by the efforts of business-aligned entities allied with national Republican leaders.
McDaniel, a state senator, has been endorsed by multiple groups tied to the limited-government Tea Party movement, as well as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
With all precincts reporting, McDaniel had 49.5 percent while Cochran had 49 percent, an Associated Press tally showed. Even with some absentee and other ballots yet to be counted, neither candidate will reach the 50 percent mark needed to win the Senate nomination outright, according to the wire service.
A third Republican, Thomas Carey, received 1.5 percent in yesterday’s balloting. He won’t be included in the runoff.
Tea Party-linked groups today called on Cochran, 76, who was first elected to the Senate in 1978, to exit the race.
“Senator Cochran has served honorably, but the rationale for his candidacy ended yesterday,” Chris Chocola, president of the Washington-based Club for Growth, said in a statement. “He said he didn’t want to run again, but everyone asked him to. Well, a plurality of Mississippi Republican voters just proved that they don’t want him to.”
Rob Engstrom, national political director for the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said on Twitter today that the nation’s largest business lobbying group would “stand by Senator Cochran.”
Earlier today, Cochran’s campaign sent out a statement vowing to press on and said it was “already up and running for the upcoming runoff election.”
McDaniel, 41, told his supporters last night, “Victory is going to be ours, one way or the other.”
A McDaniel nomination could jeopardize Republican efforts to gain the net six seats in November needed to win control of the Senate by potentially creating an opening for a Democratic pickup in a state that should be in the Republican column. Former U.S. Representative Travis Childers, 56, yesterday easily won Mississippi’s Democratic Senate nomination.
“Mississippi is a very Republican state, and this is proving to be a good year for the party, so it shouldn’t matter who wins the nomination,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “But McDaniel will cause strategists heartburn because he has already made his share of mistakes.”
The final days of the primary contest were dominated by a bizarre incident involving an improperly obtained -- and possibly illegal -- nursing home photo of Cochran’s wife, who suffers from dementia. Four McDaniel supporters have been arrested in an alleged scheme involving those pictures, while his campaign and the candidate have denied any knowledge or involvement in the actions.
Throughout the campaign, McDaniel criticized Cochran for his focus on securing government money for projects, even if many of the dollars flowed back to Mississippi. The state ranked second nationally -- behind New Mexico -- for federal spending received per taxes paid, in an analysis released in 2007 by the Washington-based Tax Foundation, a nonprofit that favors a simpler tax system.
Cochran led McDaniel during the early part of last night’s count, hovering just over a majority of the vote. McDaniel jumped ahead after a full count was reported from his home of Jones County, where he won 85 percent of the vote. That was the best showing by either candidate in any of state’s 82 counties.
After the McDaniel-Cochran race is decided, the power struggle between the limited-government Tea Party movement and pro-business Republicans will pivot to House primary races.
The redirection brings the battle back to where it began -- in the chamber where business leaders and their allies were infuriated by Tea Party opposition to a 2013 vote to lift the federal debt ceiling and avoid a government default.
For the U.S. Chamber, the focus will be protecting friends and eliminating a few House members that the organization considers troublemakers.
“We will continue to engage in races where we think we can make a difference and elect candidates who support free enterprise, are interested in governing and can win in November,” said Blair Holmes, a chamber spokeswoman.
In about a half-dozen earlier Republican primaries pitting Tea Party-aligned challengers against incumbents this year, the business coalition has had the upper hand, as has been the case in the Senate races. Before McDaniel’s close race with Cochran, the limited-government movement had secured just one Senate primary victory, in an open Nebraska seat.
Last month, Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho trounced Tea Party-allied challenger Bryan Smith, and Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the House transportation committee, defended his seat against a similar challenge.
The business community weighed in on a Republican Senate primary in Georgia to knock off two other targets.
Last night, Tea Party-aligned candidates lost primaries in Alabama and New Jersey districts held by retiring Republicans.
While control of the U.S. Senate remains the main prize in November’s election, the outcome of the House showdowns could also reshape governing in Washington.
The business lobby’s aim is to send a chilling message to the Tea Party’s most zealous members, while bolstering Republicans who have been loyal to House Speaker John Boehner and taken tough votes, such as those raising the debt ceiling.
The chamber hasn’t said how much it will spend in the 2014 election, though it probably will exceed its 2010 total of $33.8 million. The organization has already aired television ads in more than 20 House and Senate races.
With Republicans expected to retain their House majority in November’s elections, a reduced Tea Party caucus -- now numbering about three- or four-dozen members among the House’s 233 Republicans -- could give Boehner greater flexibility in 2015. It may decrease the intraparty fighting that has plagued him since he became speaker in 2011 and help with passage of business priorities, including infrastructure spending.
Among the key House contests to come is one in Upstate New York, where Representative Richard Hanna, who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, is opposed in the June 24 primary by state Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, who’s a Tea Party ally.
A super-political action committee funded by Paul Singer, billionaire founder of New York-based investment firm Elliott Management, is spending more than $500,000 to attack Tenney’s votes on budget and tax matters. Singer formed American Unity PAC to encourage Republicans to support same-sex marriage.
In Michigan, two Tea Party favorites -- Republican Representatives Kerry Bentivolio and Justin Amash -- are opposed by some business interests in their Aug. 5 primary races.
The chamber and its Michigan affiliate are intervening in Michigan’s 11th District near Detroit to aid Bentivolio’s primary opponent, David Trott, a lawyer who served on the state chamber’s board.
Trott raised $1.7 million for the 2014 election through March, more than $1 million ahead of Bentivolio, who was elected in 2012 after the incumbent resigned following a petition-signature scandal.
Bentivolio’s backers include the Sacramento, California-based Tea Party Express, a political action committee, and Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, who opposed Boehner’s re-election as speaker last year.
Amash, who also opposed Boehner for speaker, is trying to fend off a well-funded challenge from businessman Brian Ellis in the district in and around Grand Rapids.
Ellis has received campaign donations from the political action committees of Dow Chemical Co., Home Depot Inc. and Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the House intelligence committee chairman who’s retiring.
Amash’s financial backers include the PACs of the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Koch Industries, Inc. Members of the DeVos family and others associated with Amway Corp. are also aiding his re-election. The Michigan chamber hasn’t said if it will intervene in the Amash-Ellis primary.
“That’s one we’re watching,” Holcomb said.
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