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.
Ernst has definitely fed many pages into the oppo research files of Democratic opponent Bruce Braley. She announced she would have voted against the recently passed Farm Bill, which even Iowa’s fiery conservative chieftain Rep. Steve King managed to grudgingly support. She called for the abolition of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Education, and touted her support for partial privatization of Social Security. And she’s already on record supporting a “fetal personhood” amendment to the Iowa Constitution. Less tangibly, there’s also the overall testosterone-laden tone of her campaign, undergirded by her constant references to her long service in the Iowa National Guard. As the Daily Beast’s Ben Jacobs observed: “The question is whether, after a primary focused on castrating hogs and shooting Obamacare, Ernst will be able to successfully pivot to appeal to the general electorate in a state as purple as Iowa.”
Now that’s not to say last night’s results didn’t provide some good news for the pinstriped K Street wing of the GOP. They managed to croak a comeback effort by wild man Steve Lonergan in a New Jersey district that would have immediately leaned D had he won the nomination. And as of this writing, early returns in California show Neel Kashkari (perhaps the ultimate Establishment candidate thanks to his service as administrator of TARP) running ahead of gun-toting nativist Tim Donnelly for second place in the Top Two gubernatorial primary, giving the GOP the opportunity to get crushed by Jerry Brown in November without giving further specific offense to Latinos. But the Year of the Republican Establishment narrative for 2014 is now truly losing credibility, and the most likely response of said Establishment is to continue giving up ideological ground to the hard right as the price for maintaining nominal control of their party. At some point it may finally occur to political observers that the labels don’t much matter any more.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.