Here’s the larger lesson from both races. One of the triumphs of the Tea Party has been to nationalize every race, meaning that the interests of a particular state, or even a particular state’s GOP, get subsumed beneath what the conservative movement sees as its broader interests. And the voters, bless their hearts, will sometimes get exactly what they want, and what they deserve.
Let’s start with Mississippi. Thad Cochran has been in the Senate for 36 years, and he’s known as a courtly gentleman whose main focus in office has been bringing home pork for his constituents. He’s no liberal, but he isn’t much of a fire-breather either. So Chris McDaniel made a compelling argument to his state’s Republicans. “Mississippi is the most conservative state in the republic,” he said. “It deserves the most conservative senator in the republic.”
He’s absolutely right. If anybody is going to send a right-wing extremist to Washington, where he can accomplish nothing but spend a lot of time on Fox News yelling about how Barack Obama is a socialist, it ought to be Mississippi.
And when the pork that Cochran used to bring home dries up? The state’s Republicans will be able to comfort themselves with the knowledge that they got what they wanted.
The party situation in Iowa is more complicated; not only is it a swing state, but it features an interesting combination of a very conservative Republican party dominated by evangelical voters, and a very liberal Democratic party (Iowa was a hotbed of anti-war organizing during the Bush years). In an open Republican primary with five candidates, just being conservative wasn’t going to be enough. So Ernst cleverly built her campaign around emblems of conservative affinity — and, like McDaniel, suggested she would not bring home the pork.
Ernst aired one ad saying “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork…Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.” There was also the national Tea Party posturing. She followed up with another ad showing her blasting away down at the firing range: “Once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni’s gonna unload!”
Ernst was dramatically outspent by her competitor Mark Jacobs, but as the Des Moines Register put it, “Ernst didn’t need to be the biggest spender in the GOP race because she hit the jackpot with her first campaign ad.” After all the attention, she ran away with the primary, beating Jacobs by 38 points.
So here too, the party’s conservatives got what they wanted: a gun-totin’ candidate who jokes about castration, making them laugh and cheer. The only problem is that the Iowa general electorate will probably get what it wants too, when Bruce Braley beats Ernst in November (he’s led in all the polls that have matched the two).
Neither Ernst nor McDaniel is actually promising to deliver much in particular to their voters other than ideological affirmation. That’s fine if you’re a Tea Partier with a national vision, but it may not be so great for Iowa or Mississippi. Is it enough to see your senator on Fox giving liberals the business, even though the Navy decided to build its next ship somewhere else and take thousands of jobs with it? As long as most voters don’t realize what they’re missing, it might be. This is, after all, what they seem to want.