For much of 2014, a clear narrative had taken shape: unlike in 2010 and 2012, the Republican establishment had learned how to prevail against extremist primary challengers. The assessment looked pretty reliable, right up until House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost by double digits in a primary in his home district in Virginia.
Yesterday, the conventional wisdom reasserted itself, declaring, "Cantor was a fluke; we were right the first time."
In Oklahoma's Republican U.S. Senate primary, the establishment-backed candidate prevailed
over a Tea Party favorite; in Colorado's Republican gubernatorial primary, the establishment-backed candidate defeated
a more extreme challenger; and in Mississippi, the establishment-backed incumbent senator completed a furious comeback
to narrowly win his party's nod.
Mississippi incumbent Thad Cochran has won the runoff for the Republican Senate nomination over tea party challenger Chris McDaniel. Cochran's win is a stunning blow for national tea party activists, who poured millions of dollars into McDaniel's candidacy and believed they were on the cusp of victory after McDaniel narrowly won the first round of voting on June 3. Conservative organizations saw the race as their best opportunity in 2014 to prove their influence and force the Senate GOP to the right by taking out an establishment incumbent.
With just about every precinct reporting, Cochran narrowly edged McDaniel, 50.8% to 49.2%. About 6,000 votes separated the two.
After the first primary round three weeks ago, McDaniel came out on top and appeared well positioned for the runoff -- after all, the candidate with the most enthusiastic supporters nearly always wins runoff elections. Cochran, a longtime, 76-year-old incumbent had publicly contemplated retiring this year anyway, and there were rumors he might save face and just give up. Karl Rove's Crossroads operation, which had backed the senator, pulled out of Mississippi altogether.
But then a funny thing happened. Cochran started pushing a more progressive message -- he ran ads, for example, touting the importance of federal spending on priorities like education and infrastructure -- while reaching out to Mississippi's African-American population, which generally does not participate in large numbers in Republican primary contests.
The result was a scenario that was very hard to predict a month ago: an old, white, Mississippi Republican won a GOP primary thanks in large part to support from black Democrats.
As for the road ahead, the obvious prediction is that Cochran will win yet another term in November, but that might depend in part on what his vanquished GOP foe decides to do next.
A defiant Chris McDaniel walked up to the podium at his election night headquarters here after the Republican runoff was called for his opponent Sen. Thad Cochran — and then he didn't concede. "We had a dream and the dream is still with us," said McDaniel to an increasingly vocal crowd, telling them that the fight is not over. "Today the conservative movement took a backseat to liberal Democrats in Mississippi."
Though Election-Night rhetoric is often overheated, and should generally be taken with a grain of salt, McDaniel backers raised the prospect last night of court challenges, a write-in campaign, and withholding conservative support from the Republican nominee. McDaniel himself floated allegations of "voting irregularities," though there was no available evidence to bolster the claim.
The far-right candidate ended his non-concession speech with a cryptic message: "We'll see you soon."
As for Cochran, I'll be curious to see if he feels some debt of gratitude towards the voters who appear to have saved his skin. Perhaps, as a gesture of goodwill, the senator can endorse Medicaid expansion and the Voting Rights Act as a way of saying "thank you" to the Democrats who helped him keep his job?