Thad Cochran, a six-term Senator with a shock of white hair, is the spitting image of the Republican establishment. A seasoned appropriator from deep red Mississippi, Cochran is the kind of legislator who in a different era would have treated his perch as a lifetime appointment. So it was telling that many Republicans greeted his Dec. 6 announcement that he will stand for re-election next year with surprise.
Cochran, 76, raised just $53,000 in the third quarter, and he blew past a self-imposed deadline to announce whether he would run again. More important, he was facing a primary fight against a Tea Party upstart financed by a passel of hard-charging national conservative groups.
But Cochran plunged in, promising to “run hard and be successful.” And now the GOP primary in Mississippi has become the latest in a slate of Senate contests in 2014 that will test whether gold-plated members of the Republican establishment can fend off challenges from activists intent on ushering a new crop of combative conservatives into a chamber better known for comity.
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The push to depose the GOP’s old guard is taking place across the South and the Great Plains, in the strongholds of the party. In Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is facing a challenge from conservative businessman Matt Bevin. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee also face primary fights next year, while in Georgia at least eight Republicans are vying for the seat being vacated by the retirement of GOP Senator Saxby Chambliss. In Kansas, a Tea Party–backed radiologist named Milton Wolf is challenging Senator Pat Roberts. Up in Wyoming, conservative stalwart Mike Enzi is embroiled in a nasty fight with Liz Cheney.
Cochran’s opponent, a Mississippi state senator named Chris McDaniel, boasts the backing of a trio of national conservative groups: the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project. These organizations are ready to pour cash across the electoral landscape in an effort to retire Republican incumbents and usher in a cadre of ideologues untainted by Washington.
The Club is a familiar factor in GOP primaries, known for leveraging its roster of big-dollar donors to lavish cash on antitax challengers. The other outfits are newer, smaller players who are gaining renown for their penchant for picking fights with party stalwarts. But they are tapping into a wellspring of grassroots anger toward the GOP elite to soak up online dollars. “The Establishment is the Establishment because it controls the money,” says the Senate Conservatives Fund’s Matt Hoskins, who is trying to change that.
The Establishment-vs.–Tea Party showdown has also split GOP donors, some of whom find themselves torn between loyal but imperfect incumbents and newcomers with promise. “Mike Enzi is about as fine a man as you’re going to find. He’s smart, kind, thoughtful, and has been a good Senator not only for Wyoming, but for the United States,” Foster Friess, a wealthy Wyoming investor who bankrolled Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign in 2012, wrote in an e-mail to TIME. Nonetheless, he’s backing Cheney: “I’m a big fan of more youth in our legislative bodies and passing the baton to the next generation of leaders.”
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And then there’s Mississippi. “Throughout his over 40 years in Washington, Senator Thad Cochran has done some good things for Mississippi, but he’s also done some bad things,” Club for Growth president Chris Chocola said in a statement that cited, among other apparent apostasies, Cochran’s taste for pork and his votes to raise the debt limit and confirm Democratic judicial appointees.
At the same time, Cochran is a highly popular figure in Mississippi, with a 79% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. And while he boasts the backing of national conservative groups, McDaniel has a chilly relationship with members of the Magnolia State’s political establishment. In November, a survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling put Cochran’s lead at 6 points; analyst Tom Jensen argued the incumbent was in “serious danger” of losing.
The outcomes of these primaries are unlikely to tip the balance of power in the Senate, because they are being fought in some of the nation’s reddest states. But they have the potential to alter the complexion of the Republican caucus if some of the upstarts can unseat more pragmatic incumbents. “2014 is going to be a heck of a primary season,” says Drew Ryun, a top official at the Madison Project. “There are going to be a lot of punches thrown.”