Primary guide: Hot in Mississippi, cool in Iowa

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Politics,Chris Stirewalt,Power Play

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The power of conservative groups in Washington depends on being able to make Republican incumbents pay a price for liberal votes. Today’s Mississippi Republican Senate primary will have a lot to say about how much clout the leaders of outside groups have in the future. If any incumbent Senate Republican is a good target for a primary defeat, it’s Mississippi’s Thad Cochran. Cochran, who rode Richard Nixon’s coattails to Washington in 1972, didn’t even look like he was running for a seventh Senate term. At 76, Cochran had seen diminishing support in a state that had moved away from the socially conservative but fiscally liberal ideology of the previous generation to reject the porky politics for which Cochran is famous. Cochran, who has struggled on the campaign trail, has emphasized that he was drafted into the race. The reason is that Senate leaders knew that without him, Mississippi would almost certainly send a rebel to Washington. And with Democrats unlikely to win a general election in the deep-red state, arguments about candidate viability would prove no check on voters’ impulses.

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Hot tea - However weak Cochran is as a candidate, though, his challenger is far from flawless. While the successful or nearly successful primary challengers of recent cycles have tended to be serious-seeming, like Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel is flamboyant. A trial lawyer and a former talk radio host, McDaniel is something of a showman on the stump and favors the kind of flourishes that may make listeners tune in, but might make the party faithful cringe. Establishment Republicans have argued that McDaniel’s radio commentaries on Mexican “mamacitas,” gay rights and other topics will prove fodder for Democrats in other races. The argument was that Mississippi Republicans had to think of the whole Senate, not just their members. Even so, polls showed McDaniel gaining and poised to overtake Cochran, who has resorted to encouraging Democrats to cross over and support him in the GOP primary today. But McDaniel’s momentum stalled with the revelation that four of his supporters had been charged in connection with photographing Cochran’s bedridden wife in a nursing home for an online attack on the incumbent. While the scandal does highlight Cochran’s advanced age, the ruthlessness of such a move and the affront to decorum in the tradition-bound state seems to have badly damaged McDaniel’s chances. Will that be enough for Cochran to win a term that would stretch into a sixth decade in Washington? Primary polls are notoriously difficult to conduct, but the consensus seems to be that Cochran is leading, but by a far too narrow a margin. He needs bigger than usual turnout, especially in Jackson the establishment-friendly precincts south of Interstate 20. If Hattiesburg and Biloxi come in big, they can save Cochran. If those folks stay home, McDaniel’s loyal supporters upstate, especially in fast-growing DeSoto County on the outskirts of Memphis, can pull off what may be the only primary coup of 2014.

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Chris Stirewalt
FOX News