Mississippi’s bracing for one of 2014’s most intense and expensive political showdowns as well-heeled political interest groups from around the country invade the state trying to boost either Sen. Thad Cochran or rival Chris McDaniel.
They fought to a near-draw Tuesday in the state’s Republican primary. Since neither appeared likely to win a majority, they’re likely to duel again in a head-to-head runoff June 24.
That means three more intense weeks of advocates pouring into Mississippi to blanket the airwaves with ads and bombard voters with phone calls and visits to their neighborhoods.
The list of outside groups likely to keep up the pressure is a who’s who of American political influence.
Among those lining up for McDaniel: the conservative Club for Growth Action, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
Among those ready to help keep Cochran in the Senate: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, the National Rifle Association and others.
The influx of power brokers reflects the stakes. Cochran, 76, is a six-term Washington veteran known for his ability to work with Democrats and funnel federal money to his state. McDaniel, 41, is a state senator and tea party favorite who vows to champion conservative causes while making serious dents in the federal debt.
Already, 19 third-party groups have spent more than $8 million on the race, most of it on television and radio advertising. In addition, Cochran’s campaign has spent about $3 million, while McDaniel has spent about $1 million.
The third-party groups have spent more than $100 million so far this election cycle nationwide, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. About 63 percent has gone toward boosting Senate candidates. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win a majority, a goal that appears within reach.
So far, the cycle’s most expensive Senate primary was in North Carolina, where spending hit $10.1 million. Groups spent about $5.6 million trying to defeat House Speaker Thom Tillis, who easily beat a tea party favorite May 6 and won the Republican nomination.
In Mississippi, each of the outside groups has its own niche and its own strategy.
Club for Growth Action has poured in $2.5 million helping McDaniel, and Wednesday urged Cochran to drop out.
Club President Chris Chocola also promised that if Cochran stays in _ and there’s no indication he won’t _ the group would “vigorously pursue this race to its conclusion.”
The Senate Conservatives Fund, which has spent about $1 million, said it would try to paint McDaniel as the voice of a new generation of conservatives.
“Chris McDaniel started as a major underdog and has been relentlessly attacked by the Republican establishment, but he finished the primary in the lead,” said Matt Hoskins, the fund’s executive director.
To the voter, the groups are probably indistinguishable from the candidates’ own campaigns. FreedomWorks’ political arm, which has spent $350,000 so far, estimates it has put up 40,000 yard signs, passed out 10,000 bumper stickers and had its supporters knock on 104,000 doors on McDaniel’s behalf.
Club for Growth’s political operation has been running ads attacking Cochran’s record, saying he’s voted for bailouts, “liberal Supreme Court justices,” and been in Washington for “five decades.” He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1972.
Cochran did vote for Clinton Supreme Court nominees Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and Stephen Breyer in 1994 _ but so did nearly everyone else, since the custom was to give a president his choices unless there was some good reason to vote otherwise. Ginsburg got three no votes, and Breyer got nine.
Cochran has his own army. The National Republican Senatorial Committee reiterated its support Wednesday, and at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, political director Rob Engstrom vowed, “The U.S. Chamber will stand by Sen. Cochran.” The chamber has spent $500,000 on the race.
Realtors also reaffirmed their backing. “We will continue to support a Realtor champion like Sen. Cochran, but no decisions have been made yet as to the details of our support,” said Jenny Werwa, the National Association of Realtors’ public issues media manager.
Cochran’s biggest third-party donor has been homegrown. Mississippi Conservatives, run by Henry Barbour, nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, pitched in about $1.67 million.
All this spending by outsiders could create a backlash, said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. “We know our state,” he said.
The groups are well aware of the potential for alienating voters, and they cushion themselves by recruiting local staff and volunteers and polling to get voters’ opinions.
The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund surveyed voters and found them most concerned about three issues: Federal debt came first, followed by opposition to the Affordable Care Act and amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The fund geared its pitch to reflect those views. It had about a dozen staffers in the state, shifting its entire operation there, and recruited volunteers to spread the word.
“There’ll be some whining about outside groups,” said Kevin Broughton, the fund’s communications director.
But Broughton noted he’s a Mississippi attorney, so “they can’t say that about me.”