WASHINGTON — It is a major headache for the national Republican party and perhaps the biggest break Democrats have been handed in this difficult election year: a three-week runoff campaign in Mississippi between a party elder, US Senator Thad Cochran, and the sometimes unpredictable Tea Party favorite, Chris McDaniel.
McDaniel, whose showing in the primary Tuesday forced the runoff and shook the GOP establishment, carries the kind of baggage the party is eager to shed as it seeks to win over women and minority voters: He threatened to leave the country rather than pay reparations for slavery and described trying to pick up Mexican women by calling them “mamacitas.” He once dismissed a controversy over a wrestling video game in which a white woman holds down a black woman by shrugging, “Well, she wasn’t holding down a gay guy.”
Already on Wednesday, Democrats were quietly expressing glee and moving to elevate the McDaniel candidacy, hoping to make him this campaign cycle’s equivalent of Missouri’s Todd Akin, whose provocative comments on rape created problems for Republicans across the country in 2012.
Just as other Republican candidates were forced to answer for Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment in 2012, Democrats are likely to press Republicans to respond to McDaniel’s past remarks, said Caitlyn Legacki, who headed communications for Senator Claire McCaskill’s campaign against Akin.
“All it takes is one comment offhand that hasn’t been thought through, and it just turns into a snowball effect,” she said.
Even if McDaniel ultimately defeats Cochran, a six-term veteran of the Senate, in the runoff June 24, Democrats face difficult odds in trying to capture the Mississippi seat in November. (The state has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1980s.)
Democrats’ excitement about McDaniel’s strong showing Tuesday was mainly driven by their hopes of highlighting his views to a broader audience across the country.
Republicans publicly downplayed any concerns, but privately acknowledged deep worries — not only about those utterances of McDaniel’s that have already been publicized, but of others that they may learn of in the weeks to come. McDaniel has served as host of “Right Side Radio,” a conservative program, for many years, but not all the tapes have been reviewed yet.
Other Republican strategists defended McDaniel, a two-term state senator and experienced lawyer, saying they do not expect him to generate controversies during the campaign. While acknowledging that McDaniel’s “mamacita” musings will likely receive airtime on Hispanic radio, they predicted the political doings in Mississippi will have little effect on races across the nation.
“The notion that a voter in New Hampshire, North Carolina, or any other state will make their choice for US Senate based on something said by a candidate in Mississippi or elsewhere is a political pipe dream for the Democrats,” said Brian Walsh, who was a strategist and spokesman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee when incendiary comments about rape by Akin and Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock rocked Republican efforts to capture the Senate.