Democrats are watching with bated breath on the outcome of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Mississippi on Tuesday: if state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-MS) pulls off a win over incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), the state could suddenly be put into play in a very tough year for Democrats to hold control of the Senate.
It might be less improbable than it sounds. Polling indicates former Democratic Rep. Travis Childers (pictured above) might be in a decent position to run in the general election against McDaniel — a virtually unheard of scenario given how deeply Republican Mississippi is today. The last time a Democrat won a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi was 1982 according to Roll Call.
Currently, the race between Cochran and McDaniel is neck-and-neck. Both a Republican pollster and a Democratic pollster recently found Cochran and McDaniel locked in a tight race. If McDaniel pulls off a victory, the general election suddenly becomes an open seat, and McDaniel would bring plenty of baggage to the general election.
Early on in the primary, McDaniel was dogged by associations with neo-Confederates and secessionists. Even the Mississippi GOP chair insisted that McDaniel should treat questions about his associations with white supremacists seriously. McDaniel had also received criticism for saying that he probably would have opposed legislation giving $10 billion in aid to Gulf Coast states hit by natural disasters.
But the race really got heated after a McDaniel supporter went to the nursing home of Cochran’s bedridden wife who reportedly suffers from dementia to photograph her for an anti-Cochran video. As more details of that case have unfolded McDaniel’s campaign has grown increasingly defensive. If McDaniel survives the primary, he could face more questions about the ongoing criminal investigation.
Democrats also say there’s enough opposition research out there on McDaniel (especially from his years trying to be a sort of local Mississippi version of Rush Limbaugh) to give Childers an opening.
“There’s a long history of radio talk show clips that will be evidence that he’s out of the mainstream on many issues,” Democratic pollster Brad Chism told TPM.
In November, the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found that Childers and McDaniel were virtually in a dead heat: 41 percent for McDaniel and 38 percent for Childers. But against Cochran, Childers trailed by double digits, 50 percent to 33 percent.
Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who’s polling firm will be doing work for Childers’ Senate race, said he expected “a lot of Cochran supporters, politicos, funders … to flock to Travis Childers if McDaniel does this and it’s going to send a real signal to the community that this race is real.” Anzalone said the race is similar to the 2012 Indiana Senate race where Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly was able to take advantage of tea party favorite state treasurer Richard Mourdock beating Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary.
“It’s kind of the Joe Donnelly effect,” Anzalone said. “I mean Mourdock knocks off Lugar and Donnelly’s stock rises because you’re dealing with someone who’s on the fringe who exposes vulnerabilities and contrasts and at the same time has beat up on someone who’s very popular.”
Democrats plan to campaign aggressively in Mississippi in the general election but that’s only if McDaniel wins the nomination. The likely Democratic nominee has been dropping hints of his approach in interviews he’s given recently.
“I think there would be a stark contrast between me and state Sen. McDaniel,” Childers said in an interview with Politico on Friday. Childers’ approach to taking on McDaniel would be contrasting himself with a candidate whose “far-right extremism” characterizes most of his political views.
Keep in mind: that’s for Mississippi. Childers contrasts with other Democrats in that he considers marriage to be between a man and a woman, voted against Obamacare, and is against new restrictions on guns. “I’ve never really been called a liberal myself,” Childers told Politico.
And it may come down to on-the-ground strategy. What would need to happen is, perhaps, for turnout among black Democratic voters in the state to be high while turnout for white Republican voters was low — likely because of the contentious GOP primary, according to The New York Times Upshot blog’s Nate Cohn.
“The thing about midterm turnout is that although the direction arrow is worse for Democrats, it’s more variable. So you can have those scenarios where yeah black turnout is much lower than in 2012 but Republican turnout drops more. It happens,” Cohn told TPM on Monday. “It’s not the most likely outcome but if you assume that we will always have a worse electorate for Democrats in an off year election you’d be making a mistake.”