Bid to topple Mississippi senator tests Tea Party’s muscle

It is not shaping up as a great year for the conservative Tea Party movement as it seeks to revamp the Republican Party by challenging “establishment” Republicans in the U.S. Senate.

The Tea Party’s assault on Senator John Cornyn fell short in the Texas primaries last month, and recent polls indicate that the movement’s candidates are unlikely to oust incumbents in Kentucky, Tennessee and Kansas.

But the Tea Party’s outlook is considerably better in Mississippi. The stars appear to have aligned for Chris McDaniel, a state senator who is waging a primary battle against Thad Cochran, who is seeking his seventh six-year term in the Senate.

Polls show a close race two months before the June 3 Republican primary, and an army of Tea Party activists are canvassing Mississippi voters for McDaniel. Money has flooded in, with national Tea Party-affiliated groups such as Club for Growth spending close to $1 million to support him.

For the Tea Party, the stakes in McDaniel’s race are huge. If it can unseat a popular incumbent like Cochran, it can claim relevance within the Republican Party even though setbacks elsewhere indicate the movement that burst into American politics in 2010 is losing some momentum amid a backlash from the more moderate Republican establishment.

Since Cochran, 76, was first elected to the Senate in 1978, he rarely has faced a significant challenge and has not needed the type of broad fundraising effort that is typical of Senate campaigns today.

With help from the national groups, McDaniel, 41, has closed the fundraising gap between himself and the incumbent in a way that few Tea Party challengers have been able to. He raised nearly $500,000 during the fourth quarter; Cochran brought in $740,000 for the entire year.

Mississippi seems an almost ideal state for a challenge such as McDaniel’s. It is a small state with only about 3 million people, a manageable landscape for an upstart campaign. It also is a hotbed of Tea Party activism: According to Gallup polling, only Wyoming is more conservative.