Last month, Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel pulled off an early upset when he narrowly defeated six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Republican primary for that party’s nomination for one of the state’s two seats in the U.S. Senate. In the June 3 contest, McDaniel beat Cochran by 1,400 votes, in an election that saw over 313,000 ballots cast.
The only problem was McDaniel failed to top the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. Three weeks later, when the two squared off again in a runoff election, the difference was in that contest Cochran came to play.
McDaniel fell 7,000 votes short of completing the outright upset. The outcome – as I write this column – is still influx as McDaniel claims some Cochran voters were ineligible since they participated in the state’s Democratic primary, something the McDaniel campaign argues is illegal.
McDaniel could seek a challenge on legal grounds.
The bitter contest between McDaniel and Cochran has seen allegations of racism, dementia, adultery and even a suicide (by one of the state’s so-called Tea Party leaders) that may or may not have been tied to the outcome after the results.
Is it possible something like this could ever happen in an Alabama Republican Party senatorial primary?
A few years back, Alabama experienced electoral high drama in a gubernatorial contest, which featured hijinks in both the Republican and Democratic Party primaries.
Then-Rep. Artur Davis was undermined by the state’s black power structure that saw him as taking the black vote for granted in his contest against then-Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks in the race for the Democratic nomination.
But the real drama was in the race for the state’s Republican nomination, which featured a crowded field. Once the dust settled and two runoff candidates emerged, then-State Rep. Robert Bentley and former two-year college chancellor Bradley Byrne, the ensuing contest included allegations of Alabama’s teachers’ union meddling in the process with Bentley emerging victorious. Bentley ultimately became governor.
In that election, though, there was no 26-year incumbent on the ballot with a high degree of name recognition.
The one potential contest that could ever happen that might make an apples-to-apples comparison to what happened in Mississippi last week would be if in 2016 with Sen. Richard Shelby. Assuming Shelby seeks reelection for his seat – and there is no indication that he won’t – the senior Alabama senator would not be facing the identical challenge but a similar one that Cochran had with his long-tenure in Washington, D.C. (four two-year terms in the U.S. House and five six-year terms in the U.S. Senate).
Traditionally, senators in the Deep South have an affinity for bringing federal dollars back to their home states. This is certainly true of Richard Shelby, but he has a quite a ways to go to catch up to the legacy of Mississippi senators’ earmarking and steering funds. From the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula to the empty stretches of freeways around the southern Memphis suburbs on Mississippi side – the entire state is littered with federally funded projects, some with a proven benefit and some with none whatsoever.
Alabama is different in that regard. Whereas there is no shame in Mississippi in boasting about pork procuring abilities, Alabama politicians have shied away from treating federal spending dollars as a trophy on the mantle for future elections.
Without that particular aspect, you take away one of the components that might motivate a Tea Party upstart to challenge Shelby in 2016.
Aside from some quick heroics following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cochran had pretty much kept a low profile as a U.S. Senator over the past decade. Although Shelby hasn’t been a well-known name as perhaps John McCain, Ted Cruz or even Jeff Sessions, he’s been around when called upon.
During the financial crisis in 2008, Shelby was the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee. That committee was instrumental in the crafting of what would become known as the TARP bailout. Shelby had been an outspoken critic of TARP and had voted against it.
One would have to think Shelby earned some street cred with what would become the Tea Party, since there were some in even Alabama’s House delegation that voted for the $700 billion bank bailout, including Jo Bonner.
Shelby would have another powerful asset at his disposal: Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is without a doubt Alabama’s most bulletproof Republican politician.
Whoever might decide to challenge Shelby would likely have to earn the endorsement of Sessions to have a prayer. At this point, it’s difficult to see how that would be a possibility. Shelby for the most part has been as hawkish on his junior colleague’s top issue, immigration.
When discussing immigration, Shelby is quick to remind reporters he voted against one of the biggest blemishes on Ronald Reagan’s record in the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which granted three million illegal immigrants amnesty.
Unless Shelby bucked his 30-year trend on immigration, it would be safe to say he has Sessions’ backing locked up.
Additionally, Shelby has a nearly $18 million war chest at his disposal for a rainy day. In Alabama, $18 million would go a long way to saturate the airwaves. There would be no need to call in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a favor and therefore no ill-gotten deals to stay in power.
So to anyone watching what happened in Mississippi that might be considering a 2016 run against Shelby, for now you’d be wasting your time. No high-profile Republican or Republican group with any clout in the state of Alabama is going to take up your cause. And if you think outside Tea Party organizations like the Tea Party Express or the Tea Party Patriots could step in and fill that void, those groups don’t have the best of winning percentages these days.
The bottom line is Richard Shelby will have a seat in the U.S. Senate until he decides he doesn’t want to have a seat in the U.S. Senate. Then and only then will it be the right time for a Tea Party upstart to jump in.
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