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In upcoming Miss. runoff, all eyes on tea-party’s McDaniel

June 4, 2014 at 8:45 PM EST
Primary elections took place in eight states last night. In Mississippi, a tea party challenger and six-term Senate stalwart head to a primary runoff. In Iowa, Republican frontrunner Joni Ernst won the majority vote against four competitors. For a closer look at the results, Judy Woodruff talks to political editor Domenico Montanaro.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to politics.

Primary elections took place in eight states last night, with results in key Senate races in Mississippi and Iowa. Both could determine control of the U.S. Senate, but in very different ways.

Here to break it down for us again is our political editor, Domenico Montanaro.

So, Domenico, let’s start with Mississippi, where you had a four-term incumbent, Thad Cochran, up against a Tea Party challenger, and Thad Cochran, who has sailed to reelection, finds himself in a runoff.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, Political Editor: That’s right. He does.

And I think you hit when you said four-term or — or four decades.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Four decades is what I meant to say.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: He’s been around for 42 years in Congress, and that’s been part of the problem.

And what happened was a lot of these outside groups, Tea Party-backed, some of the more conservative groups, like Senate Conservatives Fund, decided they needed to find somebody who they felt like was a good target for them, kind of like Richard Lugar in Indiana in 2012.

And they found it with Thad Cochran. They highlighted some of his votes. They outspent him on TV and really made his life very, very difficult. And now we’re in a position where we essentially have a do-over race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a race where the Tea Party sees this may be their best chance, because they have had a rough ride trying to win some of these other Senate primaries.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: No question about it.

This is the — this is kind of the last, best chance. I was talking to Haley Barbour today, the former governor of Mississippi, who said that people really need to be reminded that these outside groups are really there. They’re not concerned about Mississippi, that Chris McDaniel, who is the state senator going against Cochran, would be against all federal funding for education, for example.

And they really feel like the ground game was part of the problem for Cochran. Only about 10 days ago, we learned that the National Republican Senate Committee was able to get into Mississippi to help out when they found that the ground game really was kind of nonexistent.

And without that, you may have had Cochran lose last night. And we got to this point where he is just below — they’re just below 50 because a third candidate wound up with 1.5 percent. They have to get to 50 percent. So we are going to have three more weeks of this.

And one operative tonight told me that they expect $5 million to $7 million more spent between both sides over just the next three weeks in Mississippi, which is a very inexpensive state to spend in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are establishment Republicans going to be as excited about supporting Thad Cochran at this point now that he’s in this runoff?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, and that’s the $7 million question, let’s say, because the problem is that the Tea Party activists are going to be there.

And you’re seeing now a lot of hand-wringing among establishment groups. Do they want to spend the money if they think McDaniel is going to win? The NRSC is all in, they say, on Cochran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The National Republican Senate Committee.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Right.

They won’t say that they will support McDaniel if he winds up winning. They want to put as many resources as possible into the ground game, knock on doors, remind people of McDaniel’s record, because they really see this as a race that could hinge on Senate control, could really determine Senate control, because they feel like past controversial statements that McDaniel has made really could wind up hurting other Republicans throughout the country, not just give Democrats a chance in Mississippi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, a very different situation in Iowa, where you have an open seat, one of the most liberal Democrats in the country, Tom Harkin, retiring, leaving it open.

The Republican race, you had a large number of candidates in the race, and the Republican with I guess the most memorable television ad is the one who won more than 50 percent of the vote.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Absolutely.

You know, we were talking about whether or not she would get past the 35 percent threshold to avoid a state convention, where about 2,000 party activists would pick the nominee. But Joni Ernst blew away the field. You can see 56 percent of the vote over Sam Clovis, who wasn’t even expected to be in second place, a radio talk show host.

Mark Jacobs, who was in third, was the guy who a lot of people in Washington, Republicans thought would be the person to emerge, but with that ad and with some really nimble campaigning, Joni Ernst was able to separate herself quite a bit from the rest of the field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, she’s going up against Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley.

What does she say? What kind of contest are people expecting?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, right now, Bruce Braley is up. Low single digits is what both sides see. He’s favored to replace Tom Harkin, who was one of the architects of President Obama’s health care law.

Remember, this is a state that demographically favors Democrats a bit more, of course, than Mississippi. President Obama won the state twice. There’s 40 percent of the state though are independents, are unaffiliated with Democrats or Republicans.

And that’s where this battle is going to be fought. Republicans feel like if Joni Ernst can use that message of conservative woman who was a soldier and a mom, that that can really win over some of those independents, and Braley at the same time hoping that some of the demographics of the state help him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s one we’re all going to be watching.

Domenico Montanaro, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.