- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

Tea party challenges to Republican senators are fizzling across the country, leaving Mississippi as the only state where a longtime Republican officeholder is seriously endangered by a primary threat from his right.

Sen. Thad Cochran has stumbled, both verbally and in his voting record, and won’t get the backing of the American Conservative Union in his primary battle against Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel — though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it still supports the incumbent.

But in Kentucky, Kansas and South Carolina, tea party-backed challengers are struggling to gain traction in polls with arguments that the incumbents have been captured by Washington special interests and have turned their backs on grass-roots conservatives.

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“I think the Mississippi Senate race is a great race to watch to evaluate this establishment versus anti-establishment dynamic that is going on within the Republican Party,” said Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

The same fight has played out over the past two elections. Tea party candidates scored major gains in 2010 by winning contested Republican Party primaries in a number of states, though some of those challengers fared poorly in the general elections. The movement struggled in 2012, but claimed success with Ted Cruz’s Senate win in Texas and vowed a resurgence this year.

Chris McDaniel
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But a handful of candidates running under the insurgent banner have failed to gain traction in South Carolina against Sen. Lindsey Graham; in Kansas, Milton Wolf hasn’t dented the huge lead of Sen. Pat Roberts; and in Kentucky, Matt Bevin trails far behind Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr. Gonzales said the Mississippi primary race appears to be the most competitive partly because Mr. McDaniel has credibility among voters by holding elected office, unlike the political newcomers in other states.

“I think by nature of being a state legislator he has undergone at least some level of scrutiny before,” he said. “I think we are seeing with Bevin and Milton Wolf what can sometimes happen when first-time candidates try to make this jump. They are under a level of scrutiny that they have never been under before.”

The Mississippi race also is the only primary battle in which the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and the Madison Project all have endorsed the challenger — Mr. McDaniel.

Just as striking is the American Conservative Union’s rebuff of Mr. Cochran. The organization said it will announce a decision about whether to back his challenger after the Conservative Political Action Conference this week.

“We are not going to support Thad Cochran,” ACU Chairman Al Cardenas said. “He has shown that in spite of being in a very red state, he has not voted as a conservative.”

Mr. Cardenas, however, said the ACU will support the re-election bids of Mr. McConnell and Mr. Roberts. Both won top ACU honors for voting conservative at least 80 percent of the time last year.

Mr. McConnell scored 92 percent in a survey that the ACU released last month, and Mr. Roberts scored 84 percent. Mr. Graham scored 68 percent and Mr. Cochran scored 60 percent, even though they represent two of the most conservative states in the union.

“If you are an incumbent and you voted as a conservative according to our ratings, then it would be foolish for us to encourage you to vote the right way and then turn our backs and support a challenger,” Mr. Cardenas said. “We will not challenge against an incumbent who receives 80 percent or higher unless there are moral turpitude issues.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, though, praised Mr. Cochran’s record.

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