- - Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Taking out an incumbent U.S. senator is not easy. Nine of 10 senators up for re-election in the last congressional elections held their seats. This kind of job security makes the Senate a bit of a country club, where the attitude of “going along to get along” ensures a life of relative ease and comfort.

Tea Party activists have been itching to cancel a few of those country club memberships and invite conservatives of a deeper shade of red to the club. They have a shot now in Mississippi, where six-term Sen. Thad Cochran trailed state Sen. Chris McDaniel by less than a percentage point — 49.5 percent to 48.9 percent. Mr. McDaniel would have won it outright with another half-percentage of the vote. Now there’s a runoff on June 24. If it’s difficult to unhorse an incumbent, it’s nearly impossible for an incumbent senator to win a runoff election; a majority has already told him goodbye. Incumbents can win a runoff, but they don’t do it often.

Until Tuesday night, the Republican establishment was pleased with its success in beating back Tea Party challengers across the country in this primary-election cycle. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is run by senators, naturally distributes money and assistance in a way that preserves incumbency. They stepped up their game to meet the Tea Party surge.

Mr. McDaniel is not the perfect candidate. He has been a talk-show host and said the occasional foolish thing that talk-show hosts inevitably say. But he’s running as a constitutional conservative committed to reining in spending and to repealing Obamacare, and some in the party establishment are breaking into the usual Republican backpedal. Defiant talk of repealing Obamacare was only talk.

The contrast with Mr. Cochran — who has been in the Senate since 1978, when his challenger was just 6 years old — is clear. He takes pride in his record as an earmarker, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of pork to Mississippi. Mr. Cochran opposes Obamacare, but wouldn’t stand with Sen. Ted Cruz to block all bills that funded the scheme. “Shutting down the government to show how much we dislike the law won’t stop Obamacare,” Mr. Cochran said last summer.

In a campaign speech in Mendenhall, Miss., Mr. Cochran said his seventh term would continue what he has been doing in his first six terms. “I hope to be able to continue to use my influence in Washington,” he said, “to be sure that we get our share of the federal dollars that are available to help us.” That’s the attitude that keeps the Tea Pot on the boil.

Mr. Cochran arrived in the Senate two years before the election of President Reagan, who in a 1975 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference urged Republicans to shun candidates of “pale pastels” that “blur … the differences between ourselves and our opponents” in favor of candidates of “bold colors” who “make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people.” The vote in Mississippi was a warning to those incumbents of a pallid hue.

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