TIME 2014 Election

Democrats Urged Not to Save a Mississippi Republican

Chris McDaniel Mississippi
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel speaks during a campaign rally on June 23, 2014 in Flowood, Miss. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Sen. Thad Cochran hopes Democratic votes can prevent his loss to a Tea Party challenger

Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran hopes Democrats can save him from the Tea Party in Tuesday’s primary runoff, but the state Democratic leader is urging voters to sit this one out.

“I’m encouraging Democrats to stay out of the Republican primary,” state Democratic Party chairman Rickey Cole told TIME, “simply because I believe that party primaries should be an opportunity for the party faithful to pick their candidate for the general election.”

Cochran placed just behind state Sen. Chris McDaniel in the June 3 primary, and polls leading up to Tuesday’s runoff don’t bode well for the six-term incumbent; the Real Clear Politics poll average has McDaniel leading Cochran by 6.3 points. A longtime Washington operator, Cochran hopes his relatively moderate politics and well-established record of bringing federal dollars into Mississippi will convince Democrats to cast a vote for the devil they know to block the devil they don’t. In Mississippi’s open primary system, voters can cast ballots in either party’s primary election so long as they do not vote in both, meaning only Democrats who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary can cast ballots in the runoff.

In response to Cochran’s push for Democratic votes, McDaniel supporters, including groups like Freedom Works and Tea Party Patriots, have pledged to bring in “election observers” to, they say, “observe whether the law is being followed.”

That strategy, which some say bears a discomforting resemblance to voter intimidation, could initiate a clash with state officials. In a joint statement issued Tuesday, the Mississippi attorney general and secretary of state said official state observers would be deployed to polling places for the runoff elections. “There is no authority in state law for a PAC or other outside group to place ‘election observers’ in Mississippi polling places,” they said.

If anything, Democrats have reason to hope for a win by the more conservative McDaniel. The last Democratic Senator from Mississippi retired in 1989, and the state’s last competitive Senate race in a non-presidential election year was in 1982. A McDaniel victory could open up space in the ideological middle and give Democrat Travis Childers—a former congressman who leans more conservative some Republicans in bluer states—an opportunity no Democrat has seen in decades.

“It will be easier to raise money if McDaniel is the Republican nominee,” Cole conceded. The Democratic leader is already positioning Childers as an alternative to McDaniel, describing him to TIME as “no wild-eyed radical and certainly no newcomer to politics.”

Still, he said, this rough-and-tumble primary has likely weakened both candidates. Even if Cochran manages a win he’ll be hobbled come November.

“This boy in his second term as a Mississippi state senator sure is giving him a run for his money,” Cole said. “He doesn’t look nearly as invincible now as he did last fall.”

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