JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — National tea party organizations are rushing back into Mississippi Republican primary runoff as challenger Chris McDaniel tries to finish off Sen. Thad Cochran’s bid for a seventh Senate term.
It’s unclear how much help the 76-year-old senator can expect from establishment forces trying to quash McDaniel, the archconservatives’ best and perhaps last opportunity for a GOP incumbent’s scalp in this midterm election.
“The eyes of the entire nation are on this race, and we must not lose,” the Tea Party Express wrote to members.
The 41-year-old state senator led Cochran in Tuesday’s primary voting by fewer than 1,400 votes but fell short of a majority, forcing the two men into a June 24 runoff.
In a midterm election year when tea party candidates haven’t gotten much traction, McDaniel has become the frontman for the many national groups working to pull the Republican Party rightward.
From Washington to Mississippi on Thursday, political operatives and the candidates themselves focused on the factors certain to decide the three-week runoff. It will be a contest of numbers — campaign cash and on-the-ground organization — and of candidate words, as Cochran’s establishment allies seek sought to sharpen his message and McDaniel’s allies look for ways to keep his supporters energized.
Already, outside groups have poured more than $8.4 million into the race, a staggering sum for Mississippi campaigns, with McDaniel enjoying a 2-to-1 tilt in his favor.
McDaniel’s loose coalition of backers aims to keep his supporters engaged for the next three weeks. Outside groups, which are permitted to coordinate with each other but not with McDaniel’s campaign, have praised activists for snagging more votes than Cochran in the hopes that their spirits remain high.
“The message to them is: 1,300 votes,” FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in an interview in his Washington office, referring to Tuesday’s margin. “Insurgents win on the ground.”
The activist-focused FreedomWorks has ordered 20,000 more yard signs and another 40,000 pro-McDaniel fliers to leave at voters’ doors. The group also is planning to keep its volunteers and organizers in the state for the runoff. And a five-city bus tour is also scheduled for next weekend.
Kibbe said the message is focused on Cochran’s role in Washington and will not change in the next three weeks.
Even before Tuesday, the group’s network knocked on 100,000 doors, distributed 40,000 yard signs and passed out 10,000 bumper stickers. In all, the group counted almost 275,000 conversations with potential voters.
FreedomWorks spent $350,000 before the primary, and the group is looking at a roughly similar budget for the next three weeks.
“If I can raise it, I’m spending another $350,000,” Kibbe said.
Cochran’s allies, meanwhile, have been more muted, even as they promise to stand by the senator.
“We will expect a vigorous debate about the future of our country over the next three weeks, and we will continue to fully support Thad Cochran,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement.
FreedomWorks taunted the party committee, saying it should spend its time opposing Democrats rather than the leader in the primary balloting.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $500,000 on television ads for Cochran, said it would help his cause again but did not immediately say how much it would spend.
Another group that had been helping the senator headed for the sidelines. “With the Chamber, the NRSC and a local super PAC already backing Cochran, this is not our fight,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for Crossroads.
The campaigns themselves have been quiet so far Thursday, as they regroup for the quick turnaround.
Cochran made a brief afternoon stop Wednesday at a fast-food restaurant in a suburb of Jackson. He shook hands and posed for photographs with constituents, many of whom had been invited to the event.
Elsewhere, emotions were running high in a state where gentility is a value in politics, if not a practice.
Clarke Reed, a Cochran supporter and former state party chairman, criticized the spending by out-of-state groups that paid for a steady stream of anti-Cochran TV ads.
“They came in and hijacked the Mississippi tea party people, poured the money down here,” he said. “We never had ads like this down here with half-lies, which is worse than full lies.”
Dannie Reed, a former member of the legislature and a McDaniel supporter, said the state Republican establishment has shunned people like him and Cochran’s challenger.
“The tea party has been so vilified and labeled,” he said. “Look at all the hypocrisy in the race. … It’s just everywhere around this established Republican institution.”
Elliott reported from Washington. Associated Press writers David Espo and Donna Cassata in Washington, Bill Barrow in Jackson, Mississippi, and Jeff Amy in Flowood, Mississippi, contributed to this report.
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