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Tea party Senate challenge in Mississippi shows rift in the GOP

The intense primary battle between veteran Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and state senator Chris McDaniel in Mississippi shows that the rift between the populist tea party and the establishment wing of the GOP is not yet healed. And the general election is just weeks away. Jeffrey Hess of Mississippi Public Broadcasting reports.

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    In the battle for control of the United States Senate, this summer's primary contest in Mississippi exposed deep divisions in the Republican Party that still haven't been reconciled.

    Jeffrey Hess of Mississippi Public Broadcasting has our report.

    CHRIS MCDANIEL, (R) Mississippi State Senator: The Republican primary was won very Republican voters.



    Forty-two-year-old state Senator Chris McDaniel is the energetic young face of Mississippi's Tea Party. The Sarah Palin-backed McDaniel came within a few thousand votes of beating six-term incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran in a June primary and subsequent run-off by riding a wave of anti-Washington, anti-incumbent anger.

    McDaniel claims election fraud helped Cochran win and is challenging the results in court. According to McDaniel, Democrats voted in their own primary and then illegally crossed over and voted in the Republican run-off, which is a violation of state law.

    McDaniel blames the state's Republican establishment and the Cochran campaign for attempting to stop the Tea Party in its tracks.


    They were willing to sacrifice a friend for power. And they would say and do anything they had to do to do that. And they did. That's problematic, but not just for me, because when they called me those nasty names, when they called me a racist, which is not true, when they said I was going to cut off funding for historically black colleges and universities, which is not true, when they said I was going to end welfare and suppress voting rights, which is all not true, they were likewise saying it about 187,000 conservatives.


    The contentious primary here in Mississippi was the most high-profile example of the primary battles that have taken place across the country between the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Republican Party. In 2010, the Republicans rode a wave of Tea Party support to retake the House. But many Republicans with ties in Washington believed that the Tea Party cost them seats in the Senate.

    And the Senate up for grabs again this year, they were determined not to let that happen again, and they spent millions to make sure of it. But staunch McDaniel and Tea Party supporters aren't giving up the fight.


    It split — this race split the Republican Party in half basically is what it did. So, you have got — basically, I told a guy the other day — there's a McDaniel sticker still on my car. I said, pretend that's my name on there and everything that happened to Chris happened to me.


    Mississippi Tea Party chair Laura Van Overschelde says they are unlikely to endorse or campaign for Senator Cochran in the general election against his Democratic opponent.

  • LAURA VAN OVERSCHELDE, Chair, Mississippi Tea Party:

    We endorsed Chris McDaniel because he has — he holds those truths that we should have a limited government, we should have fiscal responsibility and we should have free markets in this country. And Thad Cochran has not shown us by his voting record that he endorses any of those.


    Repairing the rift between active Tea Party supporters and more mainstream Republicans is the challenge facing Mississippi's GOP chair, Joe Nosef, who says it is time to move into general election mode.

  • JOE NOSEF, Chair, Mississippi Republican Party:

    You can't continue to move the bar every time a different election comes up and create a litmus test for what you call a real Republican. I asked somebody the other day, I just said, my only — as we were parting, I just said to him, my only hope is that you wouldn't vote against your own best interest in an effort to try to get somebody back that ran an ad you didn't like.


    The Republican nominee will face off against Democrat Travis Childers, a former congressman from the state's First District.

    Polls in the state have repeatedly shown Cochran with roughly a 15-point lead. Cochran won by almost 25 points in his reelection six years ago.

    D'Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University, says it would be a long shot for Childers to beat either Republican, but that Tea Party supporters do have a choice to make.

  • D’ANDRA OREY, Jackson State University:

    The Tea Party electorate can do one of two things. They can get out their vote, so that the Democrat doesn't win, because that is a very, very plausible case if they don't get out the vote. Or they can stay home and show, in their opinion, how much power they have. And so the question is one of those two being the answers. I just don't know because I don't know what they will do.


    Cochran would be a strong favorite to retain his seat in November, in part because of his broad appeal. In fact, in his primary, he was able to turn out black voters by reminding them of his record of bringing back funding to the state and warning about what McDaniel would cut.

    Former Governor Haley Barbour's nephew was one of the orchestrators of that strategy, which enraged Tea Party activists. Barbour himself, who is often cited with creating the Republican infrastructure in the state, feels confident that Tea Party supporters will remember that they are Republicans at heart.


    Anytime you have a vigorously contested primary, some people are going to get their feelings hurt. Some people are going to pick up their marbles and go home. But most people come back because of what they believe in. The Obama administration has followed policies so far to the left and so antagonistic to what Republicans, whether they are Tea Party Republicans or been Republicans for 50 years, those Obama policies are so bad, that people are not going to stay home.


    Democratic candidate Childers says he doesn't think that the intense Republican primary will have an effect on the November general election. He says he is not concerned that his affiliation with the Democratic Party will drag him down.


    People are far less concerned about party, Jeffrey, in the state of Mississippi. They are more concerned about who is going to work for them and who is going to stand up for them, who is going to stand up for Mississippi and who is going to stand up to Washington, D.C.


    But time is running out. The party and the Cochran campaign need to shift into general election mode to remind their voters that there is still a race to be run in November. Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell says they are moving on, confident that their primary run-off victory will stand.

  • JORDAN RUSSELL, Thad Cochran Campaign Spokesman:

    No. I mean, we are campaigning. We're out there. I think we have been in 42 counties over the past couple of weeks. We are moving forward. The campaign itself and Senator Cochran are not focused on the challenge, the legal challenge. We are focused on November, focused on making sure people understand the difference between Senator Cochran and his challenger. And the court case will play out as it plays out.


    The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear McDaniel's appeal to a lower court's decision to throw out his challenge to the run-off results. In the meantime, ballots are being printed that list Senator Thad Cochran as the Republican nominee to be the U.S. senator from Mississippi.

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