WASHINGTON – The Republican Party establishment once again won a big battle, this time in Mississippi. But it’s still facing a prolonged, bitter war with tea party insurgents.
Tea party activists and rebellious conservative groups were fuming Wednesday over Sen. Thad Cochran’s narrow victory Tuesday over Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary runoff.
A crucial reason for Cochran’s 50.9 percent showing was apparently turnout by non-Republicans, notably blacks, who traditionally vote Democratic.
This party line-crossing isn’t unusual in states with open primaries. But to the conservatives who have become increasingly influential in the Republican Party, it’s a particularly chilling development on the eve of the 2016 presidential nominating season.
“Conservatives all over this country will wonder why the GOP should be supported,” said L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica. “They will point to Mississippi and say, ‘There is no difference between the parties.’ ”
Tea party activists Wednesday used the Cochran victory to sound warnings and energize their followers. They argued that McDaniel’s 49.1 percent of the vote – as well as his defiant vow to keep fighting – showed that the movement remains on the march.
That attitude concerns Republican regulars. They have nightmarish recollections of Senate races in 2010 and 2012, when mainstream candidates lost to tea party upstarts who then lost general elections that had been regarded as winnable.
The GOP retains two reasons for optimism:
• The biggest Senate primary battles this year were almost entirely in states that Republicans are favored to win, anyway.
• The split is largely over tactics, not philosophy. Establishment Republicans have bought into the tea party agenda of dramatic spending cuts and an all-out war on the Affordable Care Act.
The trouble lurks in Congress and in 2016. Congressional Republicans are divided between no-compromise conservatives who want to fight now and get-what-you-can Republicans who see success as a long-term process.
Meanwhile, 2016 is a bigger challenge. “That’s where this fight crystallizes,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran GOP strategist in Raleigh, N.C.
The party faces a lengthy brawl for the presidential nomination. Conservatives are still smarting over the nominations of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
No 2016 front-runner has emerged. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are the establishment darlings. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mario Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, among others, are more aligned with the tea party cause.
Tea party loyalists saw Cochran’s outreach to Democrats as dangerous. His supporters poured resources into a ground game over the last few days and made an effort to turn out black voters. They were evident in Cochran ads, and a flier on cars at black churches told voters that Cochran “supports public schools” and “supports all Mississippians.”
McDaniel backers, already livid at Cochran’s ties to official Washington, were furious. “If the only way the K Street wing of the GOP establishment can win is by courting Democrats to vote in GOP primaries, then we’ve already won,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks for America.
Reaching to the other side is hardly a new strategy.
Ronald Reagan appealed in 1976 to conservative Democrats in Texas and swept President Gerald Ford in that state’s presidential primary. In North Carolina, unaffiliated voters may pick a Republican or Democratic ballot, and presidential candidates in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary have long courted independent voters. In 2012, about half the states’ Republican primaries were open or allowed unaffiliated voters to participate.
Moderate Democrats often realize that in open primaries in Republican-dominated states, their best bet to elect like-minded officials is to vote in the Republican primary. “That’s the way Democrats can show their power,” said David Woodard, a GOP consultant based in Clemson, S.C.
Republican incumbents this year generally haven’t needed Cochran’s strategy. Tea party efforts to topple entrenched Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho failed as the incumbents convinced voters they were as conservative as their challengers.
Todd Rehm, an Atlanta-based GOP consultant, warned against reading too much into the Mississippi result, noting that the state’s Republican establishment had two unique assets: former Gov. Haley Barbour and former Sen. Trent Lott. “Most states don’t have two Washington lobbying/establishment titans who have kept their fingers on the pulse of home state politics,” Rehm said.
But tea party activists worry that other states have similar power brokers who are willing to use any ploy to derail the grass-roots movement.
“This experience only brings into focus that our fight is with an elitist ruling class that will do anything to hold on to power,” said Jenny Beth Martin, chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
Tea party leaders cite David Brat’s June 10 upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and point to big numbers voting against incumbents. Graham won his primary with 56 percent. McConnell got 60 percent, and Simpson won with 61 percent.
The establishment counters that those incumbents won easily, and discontent among primary voters is standard fare. In races with no incumbents, establishment figures crushed tea party favorites in Oklahoma, Iowa, North Carolina and elsewhere.
This argument will go on. “There are really big numbers of people involved on both sides,” Wrenn said. “This is a huge intraparty fight.”