Riding the crest of victory after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning loss in the Virginia Republican primary, tea party candidates are hoping to strengthen their reach in two heavily watched GOP Senate races on Tuesday.
"There are opportunities here for the anti-establishment forces of the GOP to try to add more people to their ranks in the Senate," Kyle Kondik, an analyst for the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Newsmax.
Republican contests will be held in several other states, but the most attention is on the Mississippi runoff and the special primary election in Oklahoma.
In Mississippi, six-term Sen. Thad Cochran will square off against tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel, who has been in the state Senate since 2008, after both failed to win 50 percent of the vote on June 2.
McDaniel finished 1,418 votes ahead of Cochran — receiving 157,733 votes, or 49.5 percent. Cochran garnered 156,315 votes, or 49 percent. A third candidate, real estate agent Thomas Carey, received 4,854 votes, or 1.5 percent. A record 318,902 Mississippians voted.
Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being poured into both races by outside groups, with recent polls showing McDaniel ahead, 50 percent to 44 percent
Representatives of each campaign predicted victory to Newsmax.
"Sen. Cochran has the momentum going into Tuesday because Mississippians are focused on the issues and know Thad can do more for Mississippi," campaign spokesman Jordan Russell said in an email.
McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch said: "Chris is excited about the enthusiasm he's seeing as he crosses the state, and has faith the people of Mississippi will make their conservative voices heard when they head to the polls Tuesday."
Cochran, 76, is getting support from such Republican stalwarts as the Mississippi Conservatives Super PAC, which is backed by former Gov. Haley Barbour. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently headlined a Cochran fundraiser — and the incumbent received an endorsement from state native and NFL legend Brett Favre
McDaniel, 41, has received support from such tea party stalwarts as former 2008 Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and former game show host Chuck Woolery.
The groups backing him include the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund (TPPCF), the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), FreedomWorks, and the Club for Growth.
"Thad Cochran is in deep trouble because of his support for bailouts, tax hikes, and trillions in debt," Barney Keller, a Club for Growth spokesman, told Newsmax in an email.
But the momentum clearly is in McDaniel's favor, Kondik said.
"The signs generally point to McDaniel going in as the slight favorite, although, obviously, it was very close in the initial round of voting," he said.
The runoff winner faces Democrat Travis Childers and the Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara in the Nov. 4 general election. The last time Mississippi chose a Democratic senator was in 1982.
Because of the record turnout and state laws that bar Democrats from voting in Republican primaries, Cochran's campaign is hoping to increase turnout by appealing to Democrats and African Americans who did not vote earlier this month.
"The Cochran forces are hopeful that they can expand turnout in some way — perhaps maybe by getting some Democrats who did not vote in the initial round to vote for them," Kondik told Newsmax. "That's going to be a hard strategy to do.
"They feel that a bigger turnout is helpful to them, and they are trying to find votes wherever they can."
Regarding blacks, the Cochran move is further complicated by Mississippi's entrenched polarization — politically and racially.
African Americans comprise a higher percentage of voters in the state than any other in the country — 36 percent in 2012, The New York Times reports
. They are overwhelmingly Democratic, however, with just 2 percent voting in the 2012 Republican primary.
In addition, a canvassing effort targeting African Americans on Cochran's
behalf has drawn allegations of impropriety from McDaniel supporters and even from the head of the Democratic Party in Mississippi.
"Mississippi is a very Republican state, a very politically polarized state," Kondik told Newsmax. "Black voters are going to go for Democrats. Ninety-to-95 percent of white voters will go for the Republican candidate — probably at an 80 percent or more clip.
"There's significantly more white voters to black voters in Mississippi."
The issues surrounding outreach efforts by the Cochran campaign led TPPCF, SCF, and FreedomWorks to retain former Justice Department lawyer J. Christian Adams "to ensure a fair and legal election," the groups said in a release.
Adams recently wrote "Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department,"
which centers on alleged racial bias in the U.S. Attorney General's Office.
"The Cochran campaign and its establishment allies are now on notice: You and your Democrat-operative hired guns will not succeed in breaking the law to steal this election," Jenny Beth Martin, the tea party super PAC's chairwoman, said in the statement. "Mississippians deserve a fair and legal election, and we plan to make sure they get it."
"Election integrity is essential," Adams said in the statement, "and Mississippi has a long, documented and tragic history of lawlessness in elections. The outcome of the runoff should be determined by who gets the most votes, not by who manipulates the system the best."
Russell slammed the move as more outside meddling.
"Chris McDaniel’s out-of-state puppet masters trying to tell us we can’t run a free and fair election is insulting," he said in the email. "The phonies that parachuted into Mississippi for attention and money are not going to sway this election with their traveling circus."
In Oklahoma, Rep. James Lankford and former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon are among seven Republicans squaring off in the special primary election created by the retirement of Sen. Tom Coburn.
Polls show the race at a virtual dead heat between Lankford, 46, a two-term congressman, and Shannon, 36, who hopes to become the state's first African American and Native American in Congress.
A runoff here is clear, Kondik told Newsmax, because so many candidates are on the ballot. The threshold is also 50 percent to avoid a runoff, which is set for Aug. 26.
"It will be very competitive for the next two months," he said. "The likeliest outcome is 'to be continued.'"
Even though mainstream Republicans have coalesced around Lankford, and Palin and Cruz
have endorsed Shannon, Kondik said the battle lines aren't so easily drawn.
"It's hard to classify," he told Newsmax, adding that Shannon's endorsements "indicate that he would be more a part of the anti-establishment forces in the Senate if he were to be elected."
He also noted that the Club for Growth — a "good weather vane for picking the more conservative, more anti-establishment forces of the GOP" — is bypassing Oklahoma.
"That tells me that maybe they don't see all that much difference between the candidates or there are certain aspects of their record that they don’t like," Kondik said.
"Sometimes we make endorsements in races, and sometimes we do not," Keller told Newsmax in his email. "We have not made an endorsement in Oklahoma's Senate race."
Among the other states holding GOP primaries — for House and local offices — on Tuesday are Colorado, Maryland, New York, and Utah.
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