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May 22, 2014 4:22 PM Magnolia Melee

By Ed Kilgore

There will be eight states holding primaries on June 3, the largest number of the year. But there are only two holding one of the competitive GOP Senate primaries that are the talk of the cycle. And with Joni Ernst increasingly looking like a sure winner (either in the primary or in a subsequent state convention) in Iowa, the big contest is the one where for some time now handicappers have figured the Tea Party folk have the best chance of beating a Republican incumbent, in Mississippi.

Insults from activists notwithstanding, it’s hard to call Thad Cochran a RINO with a straight face. He has a lifetime rating of 79% (over six terms in the Senate) from the American Conservative Union, and a 72% lifetime rating from the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity. He’s been endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee, as well as by such mainline conservative groups as the U.S. Chamber.

But he’s not one to indulge much in conservative fire-breathing, and he belongs to an older generation of conservatives who saw no problem with getting as much out of the federal budget for a very poor state like Mississippi as possible. As a senior appropriator (and ranking GOP member of the Ag Committee, still important to big growers in Mississippi), he’s done his job. He’s also 76 years old, and has been in Congress since 1972.

So like Richard Luger in 2012, Cochran was an obvious target for an ideological purge, and the biggest of the right-wing outside groups, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, have heavily invested in Chris McDaniel, a state legislator and former nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show host. Citizens United is about to join the crusade with some late ads.

There’s been relatively little polling on the race, but there is evidence McDaniel has been gaining on or even moving ahead of Cochran, who has the support of the very conservative State GOP leadership, including Gov. Phil Bryant and former Gov. Haley Barbour. Nobody quite knows how or whether to factor in the bizarre incident that’s been unfolding since Easter, when a “constitutional conservative” blogger close to the McDaniel campaign took pictures of Cochran’s disabled wife in a nursing facility as part of an effort to suggest he’s having an affair with a staff member. Nobody’s proved the McDaniel campaign had any involvement beyond telling the blogger to take down the offensive post when it briefly appeared. And normally in cases like this you’d think the underlying smear would get out there and do some damage even it purveyor was discredited. On the other hand, nobody’s going to much believe that Cochran, insofar as he is not Strom Thurmond, is some sort of septuagenarian lothario.

Barring some reliable late polling, this one could be a mystery right down to June 3. Since Cochran isn’t likely to have a personality transplant and start shrieking about The Welfare or Common Core like the Chamber’s candidates in North Carolina and Georgia, this could be a true and interesting test of whether a state whose Republican voters are both atavistically conservative and heavily dependent on Uncle Sugar will vote their furies or their needs.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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