Politics

GOP Soul-Searching Over Thad Cochran

Senate staffers speak out about the NRSC.

By 6.27.14

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By now you've probably seen the reaction to Tuesday night’s Mississippi Republican Senate primary election, in which shaky incumbent Thad Cochran eked out a victory over Tea Party insurgent Chris McDaniel by making use of some rather unconventional electoral tactics.

Cochran dedicated most of his efforts to pursuing Democrats, and specifically the black community. He went so far as to threaten his new voting base by saying McDaniel would cut food stamps, and made conspicuous charges of racism against both McDaniel and the Tea Party. There were further allegations, substantiated in news reports, of “street money” paid to Democratic fixers to turn out the votes of, shall we say, “new” Republican voters crossing over to vote for Cochran on a one-time basis.

The result was exactly what Cochran and his allies, including former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, wanted and needed. Cochran managed to pull in some 35,000 “crossover” Democratic voters in a race he won by less than 7,000 votes. This created what appears to be a peculiar result: McDaniel won a relatively clear majority of Republican votes in a Republican primary, and still lost the election by a fifty-one to forty-nine margin.

To say that the Tea Party and conservative activists are unhappy about these developments would be a massive understatement. Writing at RedState on Wednesday, Erick Erickson delivered a stinging rebuke of Cochran’s tactics and a stern warning about the effect they might have on the already-shaky relations between the party’s Washington leadership and its conservative base:

But this becomes a longer term problem for the Republican Party. Its core activists hate its leadership more and more. But its leadership are dependent more and more on large check writers to keep their power. Those large check writers are further and further removed from the interests of both the base of the party and Main Street. So to keep power, the GOP focuses more and more on a smaller and smaller band of puppeteers to keep their marionettes upright.

But it's not just conservatives who are irked. On Wednesday, I had a pair of discussions with well-placed staffers working for GOP senators who are considerably more conservative and in touch with their Republican voters than Cochran.

One was effusive in praising Erickson’s piece as spot-on. “He’s right,” said the staffer. “Especially when he says the base hates the leadership, which is the number one thing we have to fix as a party, and this makes that 1,000 times worse.”

According to these conversations, some $800,000 was raised for Cochran by his Senate colleagues after the McDaniel victory in the primary’s first round, largely under the rubric of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. This wasn’t seen as a particularly controversial matter at the time; the NRSC is an organization by and for the Republican members of the Senate and Cochran had raised money for his colleagues in the past, so there would have been no reason to deny him help. “It’s just what you do,” said one of the staffers. “It’s generally accepted that we probably can’t win the Senate if we lose our own people, so when Cochran’s people ask for help raising money, the answer is yes.”

Though there were published reports to the effect—and Barbour was open about it—that Cochran’s runoff strategy was to “expand the electorate” by seeking Democratic votes in a Republican primary, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to where the funds being raised would go. And moreover, when Cochran lost a close race to McDaniel in the first round, there was a general assumption that his goose was cooked. “Nobody thought he’d win regardless of what he did,” said the staffer. “If you’re an incumbent and you’re behind a challenger that close to avoiding a runoff, you’re usually behind the eight-ball.”

As such, the staffers say, it wasn’t until Wednesday, when the fallout began to descend, that Cochran’s tactics became an issue. And now, several senators are more than a little uneasy with those tactics, which they feel responsible for since they raised money for Cochran.

There is now special consideration being given to the NRSC’s practice of engaging in incumbent protection and favoritism. Said one staffer:

The Cochran thing is bad enough, but it’s not even the worst example. Look at Ben Sasse in Nebraska. He was one of three candidates who would have been fine in that race, all would win the general election and all would have been better votes than the senator they’d replace. There was no reason to back anybody in the primary there, and the NRSC did. And their guy didn’t even win; Sasse crushed him. Now the NRSC has to mend fences with a Republican nominee, and it’s completely unnecessary.

It’s possible, though there will be a fight about it, that a move will be made to pull the NRSC back from engaging in primaries unless the state party in question makes an endorsement.

But most of all, there is a lot of soul-searching going on—particularly on the part of a number of the Senate’s more outspoken conservatives, who might have gone into Mississippi to help McDaniel but for their having made a pledge not to campaign against incumbents. “That pledge would have to presuppose that Cochran wouldn’t run a Democratic campaign in a Republican primary, right?” said one of the staffers.

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About the Author

Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics.