Conservative insurgents rallied Wednesday to capitalize on the downfall of their party's House majority leader, whose loss to a tea party-backed challenger put the differences dividing Republicans back at the forefront of this year's midterm elections.
"Did you see what happened in Virginia?" Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel said to uproarious cheers at a Republican women's luncheon in his home county.
"The people always matter. It's your government. ... If you'll take it again, just fight for it, you'll win the day."
The stunning Virginia victory of economics professor David Brat over Majority Leader Eric Cantor probably isn't a harbinger of a new tea party wave crashing over a primary season that, so far, has been mostly dominated by the Republican establishment. It came on the same day South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed six challengers in a race that, like Brat's defeat of Cantor, included lots of talk about the nation's immigration system.
"South Carolina was a referendum on whether or not you can be a conservative and solve a problem or at least try," said Graham, a major player in the immigration debate.
But the takedown of the No. 2 in the House GOP leadership is undoubtedly a sign that Republicans are far from settling the struggle between those willing to negotiate in the corridors of power in Washington and those who define conservatism by how willing politicians are to stand in opposition to President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats.
The next test in that tug-of-war comes in Mississippi, where McDaniel hopes to unseat six-term Sen. Thad Cochran in a June 24 runoff. The 41-year-old state senator led Cochran, 76, in the June 3 primary, but fell short of the majority needed to win outright.
"Our people here in Mississippi are awake, and they understand that the only way to change the direction of the country is to change the people who we send to Washington, D.C.," McDaniel said Wednesday, pounding away on his principal argument that Cochran's four decades in Congress make him part of a big-spending, debt-ridden government the nation can no longer afford.
It was a message that other tea party-backed candidates challenging incumbent Republicans, buoyed by the results in Virginia, made to voters Wednesday as they sought to capture some of Brat's momentum for themselves.
In Colorado, three of the four Republican candidates for governor celebrated Cantor's defeat in public statements or press releases. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, challenging four-term GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn in a conservative Colorado Springs district, noted that Cantor had flown to the state last month to raise money for Lamborn. Rayburn didn't mention immigration, but Lamborn nonetheless followed with his own statement emphasizing his views on dealing with immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
"I do not support amnesty of any kind, and I never have," Lamborn said.
Louisiana Senate hopeful Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel, also used immigration to hit at Rep. Bill Cassidy, the GOP establishment's favorite to compete this fall against Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu. A Maness statement called Cassidy a "Cantor clone on immigration and amnesty."
In Tennessee, Joe Carr, a tea party-styled state representative, pointed to Brat's victory and insisted his own bid to defeat incumbent GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander is viable.
"All the money and position in the world doesn't resonate with an electorate that is fed up with a Washington establishment that has abandoned conservative principles," he said.
While victories for any of those three would fail to rival Brat's win, given Cantor's lofty position in the party, they would nonetheless rank as upsets. Traditional, business-aligned Republicans — many of them incumbents — have dominated this year's GOP primaries, even if they've done so in part by moving to the right to dull the impact of tea party attacks.
Among them: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn, and Rep. Jack Kingston, who led a crowded GOP Senate primary in Georgia despite his 11 terms in Congress and has since picked up endorsements from tea party leaders who formerly backed his vanquished rivals.
Even in Mississippi, some Republicans resist defining the Cochran-McDaniel race as purely an ideological divide and question if anything about Cantor's defeat can predict what will happen when voters there head back to the voting booth in two weeks.
Count Cochran among them.
"I think there was a lot of surprise everywhere on the size of the victory and the fact that the leader couldn't defend his service in the Congress," Cochran said Wednesday at a campaign stop near Jackson.
"So, what else is new in politics? Some people win, some people lose."
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