The Republican Party’s Civil War Erupted in Mississippi—And It Isn’t Over Yet

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 4 2014 12:25 PM

Mississippi Mud

The Republican Party’s civil war finally arrived, and it isn’t over yet.

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Thad Cochran's Senate seat is under threat from Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Joshua Roberts/Reuters,Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

The candidate who boasted she had castrated hogs won the Republican Senate primary in Iowa Tuesday, and in the bitter Mississippi GOP primary race, it might just come to that. The fight in the Magnolia State has been ugly, weird, full of old grudges and fault lines, and new national rancor over the soul of the Republican Party. Now the contest has been thrown into a three-week runoff. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran received 48.9 percent of the vote Tuesday and his Tea Party challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel won 2,000 more votes to earn 49.6 percent. In Mississippi, if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, a run-off follows. 

That six-term Sen. Thad Cochran is in such trouble is a sign of how much politics has changed in the Tea Party era, and more proof that those grassroots conservative forces are healthy. In some states, like North Carolina and Georgia, GOP candidates have appealed to Tea Party voters and won despite the opposition of Tea Party elites who have backed other candidates. In Nebraska a Tea Party candidate won, but his credentials and political skill made him acceptable to establishment figures who want to win above all else. In Iowa, primary victor Jodi Ernst was supported by movement conservative organizations as well as the Chamber of Commerce.

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During the entire GOP primary season, much has been made about the brewing civil war within the Republican Party. But the races up until Tuesday managed, for a variety of reasons, to tamp down those differences. On Tuesday in Mississippi, the battle was joined. The clash between ideology and pragmatism there has been more pronounced than anywhere else, but it has been playing out through a distinctly local filter.

There is nothing personally objectionable about the 76 year-old Cochran. Quite the opposite: courtly, kindly, and gentlemanly are a part of his clamshell packaging. He is an incumbent in a business where incumbents almost always get elected. And what would seem to make him healthier than Bob Bennett of Utah and Dick Lugar of Indiana—incumbents who lost to Tea Party–backed candidates in the last election cycle—is that if Cochran is re-elected he will have considerable power in a possible Republican Senate majority. His position on the Appropriations Committee could translate into money for his state that benefits more than others from the federal budget. 

Republican incumbents like Sens. Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsey Graham learned to reshape themselves in the era of Tea Party threats, but that's not what Cochran has done. He has been running as a man who has delivered for the state in the past—on everything from the farm bill to funding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—and will deliver in the future. 

That very power, which used to make incumbents nearly invincible, is part of what made him vulnerable. McDaniel says that Cochran, once referred to as “King of the Earmarks,” is just the kind of politician who has grown the federal government and lost touch with the state’s conservative principles. 

In the various GOP primaries we've seen this cycle, many of the fights have seemed contrived, but this one has the elements of a serious ideological debate about the size and role of government. Political scientists David Corbin and Matt Parks write about the Mississippi contest in the Federalist, saying that "talk about restoring constitutional government is just that—until voters are willing to give up their place at the pork-barrel trough."

But if the Mississippi race is an archetypal Tea Party vs. establishment showdown from one angle, it also contains local spice—yet another warning against trying to neatly fit any race and its candidates into a pundit Mad Lib. The final weeks of the contest have been dominated by a bizarre back and forth over a surreptitious photograph taken of Cochran's wife, Rose, who lives in a nursing home where she has suffered from dementia for 14 years. The incident, chronicled by my colleague David Weigel, led to the arrest of McDaniel supporters and Tea Party activists. It was the fallout of a long-standing campaign by the candidates' supporters to inject questions about Cochran's fidelity to his wife into the bloodstream of the race. (Cochran shares a house with his assistant, Kay Webber, and travels regularly with her.)

This episode led to an attack on McDaniel's character and counter-claims from McDaniel, who denies any involvement (and hasn't been linked to it). He and his aides say it is the Cochran campaign that is abusing the invalid Rose Cochran. 

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