The most critical test of the establishment's firepower against the Right will come June 3 in Mississippi, where Cochran faces the toughest threat of his 42-year congressional career. Outside conservative groups are united behind McDaniel, who fashions himself as the Jim DeMint of the state Legislature, and they have spent more than $1 million to defeat Cochran. Democrats, sensing a rare opportunity to contest a seat in Mississippi, have recruited former Rep. Travis Childers, a moderate Blue Dog who voted against Obamacare and who won a House seat in a deeply conservative district in 2008 by overcoming weak Republican opposition.
"The political environment favors McDaniel, and sometimes it's hard to overcome the political environment, one that's sick of Washington," says Henry Barbour, who is running the pro-Cochran super PAC Mississippi Conservatives (and who is the nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour). "It's understandable that Americans are mad at Washington and want great change, but I can tell you that the quickest way to change Washington is to make sure Republicans take control."
THE FINAL BATTLE
Navigating a primary successfully is, of course, a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring that a candidate will win the general. The logic that underpins the establishment's idea of who's electable does not always hold. In 2012, for example, even some of the establishment candidates for the Senate who didn't face serious primaries, such as Montana's Denny Rehberg and North Dakota's Rick Berg, performed poorly in the general election. They were chosen in part because they had served in Congress — a credential that insiders thought made them great picks — and yet they lost.
Democrats say they are confident that if Tillis wins the nomination, the state Legislature's sharp turn rightward will provide them with ample fodder to portray him as combining the GOP's two biggest general-election vulnerabilities: being beholden to the Far Right, and being closely associated with the political establishment. These days, they argue, tea-party voters aren't the only ones who consider professional politicians to be toxic; anti-Washington sentiment is pervasive, and establishment Republicans who manage to leap out of the primary frying pan will find themselves facing the fire in the general election.
(Democrats have the same problems with Washington veterans. In Democratic-held open seats in Iowa and Michigan, Reps. Bruce Braley and Gary Peters have struggled despite their political experience. By contrast, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Michelle Nunn are both making headway in Kentucky and Georgia, running as political outsiders.) "It comes down to experience and a path to beating Kay Hagan. Our goal is to beat Kay Hagan." (Bill Clark/Roll Call)
As House speaker, Tillis passed bills that enraged the state's liberal base, including new abortion regulations, concealed-carry gun measures, cuts to unemployment benefits, and tighter voter-ID rules. When the Legislature is in session, liberal groups hold weekly demonstrations, known as Moral Mondays, at the state Capitol in Raleigh, protesting the conservative body's actions. If she faces Tillis, Hagan's plan will be to tie him to the actions of the Legislature at every turn, and, in a sense, give voters in the urban centers of Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte a chance to deliver a referendum on the rural-and-suburban-dominated General Assembly. "The way that Kay Hagan is successful is "¦ [by making] this election about local issues," says Jackson, the Democratic strategist, who isn't affiliated with Hagan's campaign. "Make it about Tillis as much as possible: education, corporate tax cuts, teacher pay."