K Street won a big one Tuesday night in Mississippi. Preserving Thad Cochran in the U.S. Senate, like a specimen in the Museum of Natural History, was important to the Republican establishment and its network of lobbyists, string-pullers and special pleaders who pose as citizens of rectitude and nobility, not like the unwashed in the grass roots who are forever embarrassing the party elites.
But the price of victory over an upstart with the backing of the despised Tea Party is likely to be long-lasting and expensive, and not just in Mississippi.
Chris McDaniel, the upstart, put his finger on that price on election night. “There is nothing strange at all about standing as people of faith for our country that we built, that we believe in,” he said. “But there is something a bit strange, there is something strange about a Republican primary that is decided by liberal Democrats.”
Mr. McDaniel holds no distinction as the perfect candidate, or even as necessarily the best candidate, but what makes him distinctive is that he is the candidate who won the most Republican votes in a Republican primary, and was counted out by those in his party who think they’re entitled to cancel the result. He’s entitled to regard himself as the Republican nominee, if not the candidate on the Republican line on the November ballot. Mr. Cochran and his lobbyist heroes deprived Republicans of their rightful choice in a perfectly legal way, unless it turns out that how they did it was not legal. But legal or not, it was a breathtaking act of betrayal of the people who thought Thad Cochran was an honorable man.
The three-week runoff campaign, required after Mr. McDaniel led the ticket but fell just short of a majority, descended into a nasty mud fight with mud balls, some laced with sharp stones, thrown by both sides. Dark hints attributed to the McDaniel campaign suggested that the senator had an “inappropriate” relationship with a female staffer while his wife lay ill in a Jackson nursing home. A blogger that the senator’s campaign said was working for the McDaniel camp was arrested for trying to break into a nursing home to take a photograph of the ailing wife. Neither the senator nor Mr. McDaniel was accused of keeping a Sunday school.
After the senator ran a close second in the preferential primary, he was widely regarded as a dead duck. The men with the most to lose if the senator lost, led by Haley Barbour, the former governor and a big-time Washington lobbyist, went to work. They revived a strategy that worked in the past, organizing black preachers and white unionists who ordinarily couldn’t find a clothespin big enough to keep the stink out of their nostrils when forced into close quarters with a Republican. Soon they were employing all the old tactics the segregationists once used, the “walking-around money” distributed to preachers in storefront churches to get out the vote, rumor, innuendo and finally to the not-so-subtle race-baiting that once worked so well.
The reminder of the bad old days, which have no legitimate echo today, worked. In Jackson and surrounding Hinds County, where 16,649 voters cast ballots for the candidates three weeks ago, 24,889 voters cast ballots this time — in a county with only 20,567 Republicans registered to vote. Thousands of those voters were in black neighborhoods, where “Republican” is a reviled word. The pattern was repeated even more emphatically in the Delta counties along the Mississippi River.
The black preachers and politicians, Democrats all, now rightly claim credit for saving Mr. Cochran from the evil Tea Party Republicans, and they’re entitled to their reward, such as it may be. They should bear in mind that the senator is not likely to show any more loyalty to them than he has shown to his own party. He will likely disappoint everyone but the lobbyists who used race and resentment to aid his escape from oblivion. If he wants to do the really honorable thing, he would consider switching parties.
Betrayal is a dangerous game. The gains are nearly always for a shorter term than expected. The establishment Republicans have a lot to say about big tents and party loyalty, but when someone without “the smell of the hive” unexpectedly upsets their candidate, there’s the urge to squash and pout.
The Tea Party is a blunt instrument, a reaction to establishment arrogance. Their candidates are new to the game, always bold, usually brash and sometimes unsophisticated, and learning. But they’re not going away. “The duel between the Hatfields and the McCoys is far from settled,” says one Republican strategist. In fact, it has barely begun.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.