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Tea Party vs. Establishment: Once more unto the breach in Mississippi

Tea Party vs. Establishment: Once more unto the breach in Mississippi

We’re not quite finished with Tea Party vs. Establishment primary slugfests yet, because we’ve got a June 3 Senate primary coming up in Mississippi between long-time incumbent Thad Cochran and upstart challenger Chris McDaniel.  It hasn’t been a boring contest.  The Washington Post has a good recap of events to date:

The race has been roiled over the past week by a bizarre incident in which a pro-McDaniel blogger was arrested in connection with taking an illicit photo of Cochran’s bedridden wife, Rose, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home. More arrests were made on Thursday, including a Mississippi tea party activist who is closely connected to McDaniel.

At first glance, the deeply conservative state’s Senate primary contest seems ripe for an upset. Cochran, 76, has served in Washington as long as McDaniel, a 41-year-old state senator, has been alive. A proud and prolific earmarker when senators were freer to send pork to their states, Cochran personifies the kind of free-spending Beltway broker that grass-roots conservative voters have often revolted against.

Yet McDaniel has been unable to put the race away to deny Cochran a seventh term. He has made a series of tactical errors, while Cochran and his establishment allies — well funded and prepared for battle — condemned McDaniel on the airwaves.

Breaking news: being “well funded and prepared for battle” is extremely helpful in political campaigns.  Perhaps the press will be able to dust off its tried-and-true “candidate with big war chest and powerful allies wins hotly contested election” headlines on June 3.

Since that “bizarre incident” is what everyone has been talking about lately, here’s the latest from local news station WAPT:

A tea party official is among those arrested in a case involving pictures taken without permission of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s ailing wife.

Mark Mayfield, who is a member of the board of directors for the Central Mississippi Tea Party, was arrested Thursday by the Madison Police Department. Mayfield, a Ridgeland real estate attorney, is charged with conspiracy.

“It all shocks me. I don’t understand the charge. It makes no sense whatsoever, just like a $250,000 bond makes no sense for someone who is literally a pillar in the community,” said Mayfield’s attorney Merrida Coxwell.

Richard Sager, a gym teacher and assistant soccer coach at an elementary school in Laurel, was also arrested Thursday, Guest said. Sager is charged with evidence tampering and conspiracy.

John Mary, of Hattiesburg, is charged with two counts of conspiracy.

Clayton Kelly was arrested Friday and is charged with exploitation, filming without permission and conspiracy. He’s accused of taking photos of Rose Cochran at St. Catherine’s Village, the nursing home where she has lived for 13 years.

While the court system wrestles with the precise dollar value of these photos and videos – somewhat oddly described as “priceless” by the police, in order to justify slapping the photographer with felony charges – the Cochran and McDaniels campaigns have been blasting away at each other with charges of slander.  The local district attorney says he saw no direct connection with the McDaniel campaign, but each campaign accuses the other of knowing about the incident but failing to notify authorities for political reasons.

The latest developments in the stalking story would seem to put McDaniel’s campaign in the clear, but there is speculation that the whole mess blunted his gathering momentum in what looked like a tough but winnable race, in addition to making some of his supporters look bad.  It seems like everything has narrowed down to the controversy over the photos of Mrs. Cochran over the past few weeks, a controversy that puts McDaniel on the defensive by definition, even as the D.A. declares no direct linkage to his campaign.  (When the best outcome a candidate can hope for from a story is “I had nothing to do with it,” he is, by definition, on defense, no matter how the facts of the case shake out.  It’s rather difficult to turn something like that into a net plus.)

That’s not where the challenger to a well-established incumbent with plenty of local support wants to be.  In a sense, every such challenger starts the race playing defense, struggling to assure big state players that he’s a solid alternative with a real chance at winning the general election and preserving the advantages brought to the state by its long-serving representative.  It’s a mistake to think of the person currently holding the seat as the “defender” in such a strategic environment; perhaps that’s the fundamental mistake many failed insurgencies make.

The Post sees undaunted groups “doubling down” on their best chance to unseat an established incumbent during this election cycle:

Citizens United and ForAmerica will soon begin advertising in Mississippi, joining an array of conservative organizations backing McDaniel. Together, tea-party-aligned groups have spent nearly $2.4 million, compared with the $1.8 million that pro-Cochran groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have invested, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.

L. Brent Bozell III said his group, ForAmerica, has “decided to get behind McDaniel this week with a six-figure buy” focused on digital advertising.

“I’m not looking for scalps, but I am looking for conservative victories, and Cochran remains a top target,” he said. “He campaigns as a conservative and governs as a moderate.”

David Bossie, president of Citizens United, whose political arm has backed McDaniel since January, is ramping up his efforts. He said that beginning Thursday, he will spend $175,000 for statewide cable and broadcast advertisements — a significant buy for the modestly sized tea party group.

“This is about Mississippi voters, who want a conservative leader in Washington raising Mississippi’s voice to be with the Ted Cruz-Mike Lee part of the party, not part of the establishment and part of the problem,” Bossie said, referring to the combative senators from Texas and Utah.

The biggest spender has been the Club for Growth, which has been on the air for weeks and spent more than $1.7 million. The Senate Conservatives Fund has spent about $1 million, while other groups — including the Tea Party Patriots and the Madison Project — have been active, according to the Sunlight Foundation analysis.

Team Cochran is betting big on the immense advantages enjoyed by a four-decade incumbent, with local concerns trumping the conservative-versus-Establishment narrative:

Cochran’s advisers and advocates insist the money is all for naught. Although they acknowledge the race is tightening, they also argue that Mississippians will not turn out a senator who, as a member and former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has delivered time and again for his poor and rural state, such as after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.

“He can just accomplish so much more than Chris McDaniel, and I think people see a contrast in that we know we can count on Senator Cochran,” said Henry Barbour, a nephew of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R) who is running Mississippi Conservatives, a pro-Cochran super PAC.

He recalled an exchange, reported in February by Politico, in which McDaniel told an audience at the University of Mississippi: “I’m not going to do anything for you. I’m going to get the government off your back, and then I’m gonna let you do it for yourself.”

And we all know that in today’s America, nobody can be left to do anything for themselves.

Cochran has a poor 63 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, but he’s on much better terms with social-conservative groups, winning the endorsement of National Right to Life this week.  And he’s very definitely got the National Republican Senatorial Committee on his side, as they’ve been hitting McDaniel hard… hard enough for chairman Jerry Moran to hold off on committing to support McDaniel against the Democrats in the general election, should he win the primary.  Outside groups have also been hitting McDaniel over comments he made when he was a radio host – one of the toughest jobs to launch a political career from, in this era of weaponized sound bites.

Polling in the race is said to be both tight and somewhat sparse, making the big finish extra-tense.  Nothing gets the political wonk’s heart beating faster than a dead heat in the dark.

At the local level, it’s not surprising, or illogical, that people in a state might prefer to keep a seasoned representative with a long track record of bringing home the bacon.  That’s always been one of the greatest obstacles facing conservative and libertarian reformers, both in primaries and the general election.  Our unsustainable spendthrift government didn’t get that way by accident, and it didn’t get that way recently.  Incumbents did not achieve a 90 percent re-election rate, from an electorate that claims to hate insiders and politics-as-usual, by using witchcraft and hypnosis.

When an outsider takes a shot at such an incumbent, they’ve got to run a nearly perfect race.  Make that the second consistent mistake made by failed insurgencies, in addition to failing to see that their candidate generally enters the battle on defense.  Grassroots energy, revolutionary zeal, and even good solid arguments aren’t always enough to escape the blast radius of a gaffe bomb, including those primed before the candidate ever got into politics.  That’s one reason the lifetime political class, both Republican and Democrat, often does so well against Cincinnatus citizen-legislator types.  Anything saucy said in your “old life” is going to make a return appearance during your big run for the Senate or House.

The Republican Establishment wants to either subdue or co-opt the Tea Party insurgency.  The insurgents want to shake the pillars of political Olympus and begin the difficult process of changing the death-spiral culture of Washington.  Mississippi won’t be decisive one way or the other, but of course a lot of people will say it was, ten minutes after either Cochran or McDaniel concedes.

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