Sen. Cochran In Danger Of Losing Primary To Tea Party Candidate

The most closely watched of Tuesday's primaries was the race in Mississippi, where incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran was fending off a challenge from Tea Party-backed Chris McDaniel.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yesterday voters took part in another set of primaries. The most closely watched race of the night was in Mississippi. That's where incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran was fending off a challenge from Tea Party-backed Chris McDaniel. Another battle between the Tea Party and the so-called Republican establishment. And with the votes still being tallied, it's a very tight race. Last night McDaniel, though, was sounding triumphant.

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CHRIS MCDANIEL: For too long, we've been silent. For too long, we sat still. For too long, we let them have their way with us. And tonight from Mississippi they heard us once again.

INSKEEP: But it's not yet clear what message Mississippi is sending. It is possible that race will go into a runoff. We don't know. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been falling it. She's on the line. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what happened in Mississippi?

LIASSON: Well, Mississippi was the last best chance for the Tea Party to score a victory against a sitting Republican Senator. It's not over yet, as you said. McDaniel is actually ahead by less than a point, but neither candidate got 50 percent. So there probably will be a runoff on June 24.

There was tremendous amounts of outside money spent on this race. The Club for Growth , the Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party groups all spent for McDaniel. Establishment groups came in to support Cochran. The race also took a Southern Gothic turn, as in weird and twisted, when a pro-McDaniel blogger was arrested for sneaking into a nursing home where Thad Cochran's wife, who suffers from dementia, was living. He videotaped her and posted it briefly on the Internet. And there was a backlash to that. And it did hurt McDaniel but obviously not enough to defeat him.

INSKEEP: And just a reminder here of course we're talking about primaries to set up the Senate races this fall. And it all matters not just because of the beliefs of the candidates who win, but the electability of the candidates who win. Republicans are trying to gain a bunch of seats and maybe gain control.

LIASSON: That's right, and the winner of the runoff in Mississippi is going to face Democrat representative Travis Childers. Now, Mississippi is about as red as you can get. But Democrats do feel that they could make this a competitive race in Mississippi if the Republican is McDaniel.

INSKEEP: OK, now, what about other Senate races that could make a difference here?

LIASSON: Well, in Iowa, which is one of the races that Republicans are very hopeful about in the fall as they look for those net-six seat pickups to get control of the Senate, they are hoping to win the seat that is being vacated by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. Joni Ernst easily won the Republican primary last night. She's the state Senator. She was a consensus candidate. She had the Tea Party and the establishment behind her. She got endorsements from Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney.

She didn't have a lot of money, but she did make some provocative television ads that got her a lot of attention, including one where she was castrating hogs on a farm. And the message was, I'm going to make them squeal in Washington. There was another one of her shooting at a shooting range, blasting away at a copy of the Affordable Care Act.

INSKEEP: OK, well, that will get you going. And so there she is. So we've been talking about this Senate here mostly, but I want to ask about a different kind of race - the California governor's race. California choosing a governor again this year.

LIASSON: That's right. Jerry Brown is heavily favored to win. California has something called a top-two primary. It's an open primary. Jerry Brown came in first, but the runner-up who will face him in the fall is a Republican named Neel Kashkari. The real drama in this open primary was among the Republican candidates. The Republican Party in California has really hit rock bottom. And this was a battle for what kind of party it would be as it tries to climb back into respectability to find a way to appeal to Hispanic voters.

So Neel Kashkari, the moderate Republican, came in second to Jerry Brown. He'll face Brown in the fall. And he was the head of the bank bailout for George W. Bush. Moderate candidate, he defeated, Tim Donnelly, who was very conservative, anti-immigrant. So for the establishment wing of the Republican Party who's trying to start from scratch in the biggest, bluest state, that was a welcome.

INSKEEP: Oh, the establishment got the candidate they wanted.

LIASSON: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: So it's sounding like, Mara Liasson, the Tea Party is not having a very good year.

LIASSON: No, the Tea Party has pretty much been shut out with the exception of that possible wildcard in Mississippi. Also last night, the establishment wing of the Republican Party got the candidates they wanted in South Dakota and Montana where they are heavily favored to win in the fall. So I think this year is following the same basic pattern. The establishment candidates are winning, and the pool of competitive Senate seats is expanding. And Republicans feel they have a pretty big pool to fish in to get the net-six seats they need to win control of the Senate.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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