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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 5: Cochrane in Crisis, and Ernst Wins By Heading Far Right

The marquee contests in this week’s “Super Tuesday” primaries were Republican Senate contests in Mississippi and Iowa. And though the official score card assigned by much of the MSM was a tie in MS and a clear win in IA for the Republican Establishment, a deeper look suggests deeper problems for the GOP, as I explained yesterday at TPMCafe:

Had Thad Cochran eked out the narrow victory early returns seemed to indicate, the results, along with Joni Ernst’s comfortable win in Iowa, might have finally laid to rest the fears of Beltway Republicans that they are in danger of giving away Senate seats via erratic Tea Party nominees like 2010’s Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle and 2012’s Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. A Cochran win would have been especially gratifying to the GOP Powers That Be, given the strong commitment outside conservative groups made to challenger Chris McDaniel, the state’s fertile ideological soil, and the aging incumbent’s inability to adjust to the savage tone and substance of contemporary conservatism.
But now a deeply wounded Cochran faces a three-week runoff campaign in which many factors — especially turnout — favor his opponent. And with the heavy investment of groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth in Mississippi as their best prospect for a Senate RINO “scalp,” it would take a phenomenal effort by the incumbent or a big gaffe by the challenger to change the momentum in this race. When the smoke clears on June 24, Mississippi will likely join Kentucky and Georgia as states where the loss of a Republican Senate seat in November is possible, and the dissipation of GOP resources better spent elsewhere is certain. Beyond that, Republican pols everywhere would know that not even four decades of genial service and effective money-grubbing for a very poor state, or the support of virtually everyone there ever elected to a position above dogcatcher, is enough to survive the ever-rightward tide of the conservative activist “base.”
Looking at Iowa, and more generally the post-primary Senate landscape, a likely Cochran defeat isn’t the only problem facing win-hungry GOP “pragmatists.” Joni Ernst joins North Carolina’s Thom Tillis — and potentially Georgia’s Jack Kingston, if he wins the July 22 runoff — as “Establishment” figures who’ve chosen the easy way to the nomination by adopting the most conservative positions and messages available, thus giving their Democratic opponents important general election talking points. As the king of GOP “pragmatists,” Mitt Romney, showed in 2012, it’s not always so easy to “etch-a-sketch” a new swing-voter friendly persona after spending months rushing to get in front of every movement conservative parade in sight.

Since the smoke cleared in Mississippi Wednesday morning, there have reportedly been agonized conferences involving both local and national Republican poohbahs who aren’t sure whether to go all out for Cochran in a runoff, cut their losses with a reduced financial commitment, or at least instruct Cochran’s campaign to avoid any scorched-earth tactics that might make McDaniel’s general election task more difficult if he’s the nominee. The 2014 primary cycle is not turning out to be a walk in the park for the Republican Establishment after all.

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