ITAWAMBA COUNTY, Mississippi — State Sen. Chris McDaniel finished up an early morning campaign stop Monday by urging his supporters to “push like you’ve never pushed before” to get voters to the polls in Tuesday’s Republican primary. Polls show the Tea Party-backed challenger is neck-and-neck with incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran and turnout will be the decisive factor in a bitterly contested GOP fight that has drawn national attention.
“If we can unseat a 42-year incumbent, it will send shock waves through this country,” McDaniel told about 40 of his supporters who turned out for a breakfast meeting at Chick-fil-A in Tupelo.
The shock waves of a McDaniel victory would be a rebuke not only to the Republican establishment that has poured millions into Cochran’s re-election effort, but also to pundits who have been trying to write the obituary of the Tea Party movement. Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, the united effort of grassroots conservatives in the Mississippi primary has shown that the Tea Party is still very much alive, lifting up McDaniel — a young state senator previously unknown outside his district — to fight a down-to-the-wire campaign against a powerful incumbent with universal statewide name recognition. A number of national groups, including Tea Party Patriots, Black Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and Club for Growth, have backed McDaniel’s challenge to Cochran, helping counter-balance the incumbent’s advantages, while conservative radio talk-show hosts like Mark Levin and Glenn Beck have also endorsed McDaniel.
Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum made campaign appearances for McDaniel over the weekend. A crowd estimated in the thousands by Breitbart.com’s Matthew Boyle turned out Friday for Palin’s rally for McDaniel in his hometown of Ellisville, near Hattiesburg. Palin used the language of evangelical Christianity in her speech, praising McDaniel as having “a servant’s heart” and asking his supporters to provide a “prayer shield” for the candidate.
Evangelical voters are a key component of the GOP coalition in Mississippi, and the endorsement of social conservatives like Santorum could make a crucial difference for McDaniel, whose campaign has spent two weeks fighting the distraction of one of the weirdest political scandals in recent memory. A pro-McDaniel blogger named Clayton Kelly was arrested May 17 and charged with illegally entering a nursing home to obtain a photo of Cochran’s invalid wife. This bizarre stunt “crossed all bounds of propriety,” as Jazz Shaw wrote at HotAir.com. Like a plot twist in a Faulkner novel, what Kelly was evidently attempting to do was to call attention to Cochran’s own potential scandal, a story that mainstream media have generally ignored: While the senator’s wife languishes in a nursing home with dementia, Cochran has by all appearances been cohabiting with his executive assistant Kay Webber, listing her Capitol Hill townhouse as his address on legal documents and taking her on taxpayer-funded trips to more than 40 countries. But if the rogue blogger Kelly had hoped to dramatize that story with a photo of the senator’s wife, his misguided effort backfired badly, generating sympathy for Cochran, whose campaign has tried to blame McDaniel for Kelly’s actions. Dueling ads focused on that incident hit the TV airwaves in the closing days of the campaign, and the underlying question about Cochran’s rumored relationship with Webber was obscured.
It was this distraction that spurred Santorum to jump in on McDaniel’s behalf. “I said you know what, they’re hiding the ball here,” Santorum said at a Saturday appearance with McDaniel in Diamondhead near the Gulf Coast. “They’re hiding the ball and trying to make this race not about what’s important for our country and the next six years for the state of Mississippi, but they’re trying to make this about something else that has nothing to do with the two candidates.”
Despite that distraction, however, McDaniel has stayed focused on his campaign’s message that Cochran has been in Washington, D.C., too long and isn’t the kind of conservative leader that this deep-red state needs. (See Scott McKay’s analysis of Cochran’s record.) “The most conservative state in the country needs the most conservative senator in the country,” McDaniel told his Tupelo supporters gathered in the Chick-fil-A dining room Monday morning. “It’s not about me. It’s not about Senator Cochran. It’s about the people of Mississippi.”
McDaniel has repeatedly invoked the names of recently-elected Tea Party-backed Republican senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah — as exemplifying the kind of leadership he aims to provide if GOP voters pick him Tuesday in a primary where victory would almost guarantee him election in November in this staunchly Republican state. Already recognized as a leader among conservatives during his tenure in the state senate, McDaniel hit all the key themes in his brief speech in Tupelo — term limits (because “career politicians are destroying this country”), supporting a balanced-budget amendment, vowing “no more bailouts, no more subsidies” and, most importantly, promising to repeal “every clause, period and comma of ObamaCare.”
That promise drew enthusiastic applause from the Tupelo supporters. “The people of the state are waking up,” McDaniel said, adding that a victory Tuesday would remind politicians in Washington “that they work for us, and not the other way around.”
With polls showing an absolute tie, according to the Real Clear Politics average, every vote will count — including the votes of Democrats to whom the Cochran campaign has appealed, urging them to cross over under the state’s open-primary rules. With the Republican establishment so desperate that they need Democrat voters to have any hope of re-electing the incumbent here, the pundit obituaries for the Tea Party movement are clearly premature, and if McDaniel pulls off an upset win, his victory may help give the GOP establishment a shove toward the political graveyard.