“If you live and die in every election, you won’t last long in this business,” Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said early Wednesday as he munched on a bagel with cream cheese.
It was the morning after six-term Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), to the surprise of many, turned back a Republican primary challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a favorite of the tea party movement and a candidate backed by the Club for Growth.
In the long campaign this spring that has pitted establishment and rebellious forces of the Republican Party in a series of primary contests, Mississippi was the biggest of all, a crushing defeat for the insurgents. And as disappointed as he was about McDaniel’s loss, Chocola couldn’t help but offer admiration for the victors.
“What they did in Mississippi just from a pure electoral standpoint is amazing,” he said of Cochran’s campaign and the work of the Mississippi establishment led by former governor Haley Barbour. “That was an accomplishment, to expand the electorate in a runoff by getting people to vote that are not your natural constituency. So you’ve got to give them credit for figuring out how to do that.”
Chocola’s organization had bet heavily on McDaniel, more so than any other outside group on either side. The club’s political action committee spent $3.1 million on behalf of McDaniel, $600,000 of it during the three-week runoff campaign. The group also bundled an additional $400,000 in direct contributions from individuals to McDaniel’s campaign.
In some quarters, Cochran’s victory was considered one more example of how the establishment has trumped the tea party movement this spring. Cochran was by far the most endangered senators with primary challengers, and after running narrowly behind McDaniel in the first round of voting on June 3, he appeared likely to lose the runoff Tuesday.
To Chocola, Mississippi was significant because it exposed the establishment for what it is: a group of Republicans bent on maintaining power at the expense of principle. “Who does the establishment back?” he said. “The candidate that says, ‘Elect me and I’ll bring you more government.’ And who do they oppose? The candidate that says, ‘Elect me and I’ll bring you more freedom.’ ”
Late Tuesday night, after Cochran had been declared the winner, McDaniel delivered a no-quarter speech in which he neither congratulated the incumbent nor conceded defeat. Instead he chastised the establishment for “reaching across the aisle” for Democratic votes and questioned whether the Republican primary had been won by Republicans.
Chocola tried to give McDaniel the benefit of the doubt. “I didn’t see it, but it’s an emotional moment,” he said. “Here’s a guy that’s been immersed in this for a long, long time, fighting the fight, and a sincere fight. . . . He cares about it. Part of what we liked about him was we think he’s pretty sincere.” But he was not endorsing what McDaniel had said. “You might want to take a deep breath,” he suggested.
As the runoff campaign was getting underway, the Club for Growth had traded insults with Cochran supporters. Barbour claimed that Chocola’s group was in desperate straits, worried that a loss in Mississippi would dry up its fundraising. “They’ve bled themselves white trying to get the only scalp left,” he said.
Barney Keller, the club’s spokesman, responded by charging that it was Barbour who was desperate, fearful of losing clout and lucrative lobbying fees if Cochran was defeated. “His influence business in Washington will take a big hit when he no longer has a Mississippi senator in his back pocket,” he said.
Chocola tried to tamp it all down Wednesday. “People like us when they like us and they don’t when they don’t,” he said. “It’s all a matter of perspective. We don’t take too much personal because we’re on the same side.” He called Cochran “a nice guy.” The fight, he said, is about policies, not personalities.
On this day of disappointment, the former House member said he preferred to take the longer view. He said he measures progress not by the win-loss record of this or any particular election year but by the direction in which he sees the party moving.
“When I go back to when I served in the House, we passed transportation bills with no controversy,” he said. “We passed farm bills with no controversy. We authorized the [Export-Import] Bank with no controversy. We increased the debt ceiling with no controversy. Nobody asked a question. It was all course of business. Today all those things are controversial.”
The insurgent forces have not won many of those battles, although he said there is hope, in the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprise primary loss two weeks ago, that conservatives will be able to defeat the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. “If we win it . . . it’s a small and significant victory,” he said.
Chocola also called descriptions of a GOP at war with itself overstated. “There’s no civil war inside the Republican Party,” he said.
What exists, he added, is friction, between those who believe what they say about the party’s conservative principles and those who do not. “Frankly,” he said, “that friction is going to save us. It’s not going to kill us because gliding down the path of fiscal unsustainability that we’re on with no debate, that’s what’s going to kill us.”
Establishment Republicans have blamed the tea party movement for helping to nominate candidates who proved not ready for prime time, costing the GOP a handful of seats that could have put it close to the majority today.
“They want to talk about Akin and Mourdock,” Chocola said, referring to former Senate candidates Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who both lost in 2012 after making controversial statements about rape and abortion. “We know why Akin and Mourdock lost. They said really stupid things.”
Chocola then ticked off a string of establishment candidates who also lost in recent cycles, including ones in states where Mitt Romney won handily, and said establishment Republicans should ask why. His answer: Unlike Democrats, Republicans are too timid to articulate their beliefs. “Republicans think too hard about trying to make people that aren’t going to like them like them, rather than deliver their message in a clear, compelling and confident way,” he said.
He returned to what happened in Mississippi. “What is the Republican Party?” he asked. “Is it the Thad Cochran party? We’re going to bring more government to you? Or is it the party of individual freedom, opportunity and free markets? Which is it?”
In defeat, Chocola signaled no retreat and no second thoughts. “It’s a process that will continue,” he said. “We’re disappointed but undeterred in last night’s results.”