Tuesday's Senate primary elections in Iowa and Mississippi present two possible futures for the Republican Party. In Iowa, state Sen. Joni Ernst rose above a crowd of contenders to earn endorsements from the full spectrum of the party -- from Sarah Palin and the Senate Conservatives Fund to Mitt Romney and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with Sen. Marco Rubio in between. In the end, Ernst vastly outperformed expectations, taking more than 50 percent of the vote. She united her party and established herself as a formidable candidate in this fall's election.
Mississippi's primary result could not have been more different - a bitter feud and an electoral deadlock that will prolong the agony for three more weeks with a runoff election. State Sen. Chris McDaniel finished ahead of incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran but both men were stuck just below the 50-percent threshold.
Cochran, who went into hibernation near the end of his campaign, did little to help his cause. He leaned heavily on the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a super PAC established by Mississippi GOP establishment powers for the sole purpose of re-nominating him. Whatever the end result, the eventual GOP nominee will be weakened, despite the state's strong Republican tilt.
Republican primaries can't always exhibit the kind of harmony that Ernst created in Iowa. But even the bitter disputes don't need to be quite like the one in Mississippi. Compare Cochran's likely career-ending performance to last month's result in Kentucky. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell easily fended off a Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin, despite the latter's heavy support from conservative outside groups.
McConnell savaged the Tea Party groups directly challenging him, but he also vigorously and successfully made the case for his own conservative record. Bevin never caught on in Kentucky because McConnell has been diligent over the years in building his conservative bona fides. Cochran did the opposite, remarking at one point in the campaign that “the Tea Party is something I don't really know a lot about." Cochran thought his pork-barreling record would win him a seventh term, but a 1978 mentality won't work with 2014 voters.
The result prompted some bitter responses like this tweet from lobbyist John Feehery: “I guess Mississippi doesn't want federal money anymore.” Similarly, former NRSC flak Brian Walsh said it's “hard to compete against groups who only care about 'a scalp' and not at all concerned with winning a GOP majority in the Fall.” But what’s the point of a GOP majority that spends the nation into a $16 trillion national debt instead of the Democrats’ $17 trillion mark?
Tea Party operatives have blundered more than a few times in their search for incumbent GOP scalps, but Republican regulars should admit their side shares blame. Cochran's attitude — wherever it appears in an incumbent — not only invites Tea Party challenges, it also legitimizes challengers in the eyes of persuadable conservative voters. It’s time everybody in the GOP recalled Reagan’s practical political wisdom: “My 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy.” Just ask Joni Ernst.