Two of the longest-serving members of Congress face primary elections Tuesday that could end their political careers.
Six-term Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran needs a comeback in a Republican runoff after trailing tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel in a June 3 primary. With more than $12 million in outside spending, the election has become the latest focus for the national battle between traditional Republican powers and conservative insurgents. Race is an issue, too, as tea partyers try to monitor how many Democrats– particularly black voters–cast ballots in the GOP runoff.
Race also is an issue in New York, where Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, one of the most recognizable members of the Congressional Black Caucus, faces multiple challengers in his primary as he aims for a 23rd term representing demographically shifting areas of New York City. Rangel’s top challenger is state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-born legislator running in the increasingly Hispanic district.
In all, there are elections Tuesday in seven states. Colorado and Maryland will pick candidates for governor. Republicans in Oklahoma will choose a nominee who will be favored to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Coburn. Utah has legislative primaries, and in South Carolina there is a Republican runoff for lieutenant governor.
But it’s Cochran and Rangel who have drawn the most attention. Both races feature aging lawmakers – Cochran is 76, Rangel is 84 – battling younger competitors in a midterm election year marked by widespread voter discontent with Congress and the nation’s overall direction. In both cases, the primary winners will be heavy favorites in November.
On Monday, Cochran pressed his campaign to convince Mississippians that they cannot afford to lose his influence and ability to steer billions of federal dollars back to the state, one of the nation’s poorest. The former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman could return to his old post if he’s re-elected and Republicans win a Senate majority in November.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, was the latest establishment Republican to help Cochran’s cause Monday, appearing alongside his colleague at a rally in Mississippi’s capital.
McDaniel, who had multiple campaign stops scheduled Monday, used McCain’s visit to support his argument that Cochran is the face of a $17 trillion federal debt and a profligate Congress the nation can no longer afford.
“When you total up the amount of time that Cochran and McCain have been in the Senate, you get 62 years,” McDaniel wrote in a fundraising email. “They’ve been in Washington for a combined 72 years. That’s a long time, and a long list of appropriations.”
McDaniel hasn’t detailed his plans to balance the budget, but he’s drawn solid support from national and local tea party-aligned organizations.
The Club for Growth has spent about $2 million on television advertising for McDaniel, plus hundreds of thousands more on voter turnout efforts. The Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, among other groups, also have chipped in to boost McDaniel’s effort. Cochran has benefited from a super PAC run by family members of former Republican national chairman and two-term Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is among the top donors, at $250,000.
In New York, Rangel has not escaped the stain of his 2010 House censure that followed the Ethics Committee’s finding him guilty of 11 violations. Espaillat, 59, used the scandal in 2012 to come within 1,000 votes of unseating Rangel.
Arguments over spending priorities and ethics aside, racial considerations could help determine both contests.
Facing contempt from some conservatives, Cochran has aimed his influence argument at independents and Democrats, including African-Americans in a state with the nation’s highest proportion of black voters. In Mississippi, voters do not register by party and anyone can vote Tuesday, except the 85,000 people who cast Democratic ballots on June 3. McDaniel’s campaign calls the appeal to Democrats “desperate” and even suggests it’s illegal, though that claim is based on an old law that courts have invalidated.
Rangel, meanwhile, must run as Harlem and surrounding neighborhoods have become increasingly Hispanic. Espaillat would become the first Dominican-born member of Congress. Rangel raised eyebrows when he asked in one debate, “Just what the heck has he done besides saying he’s a Dominican?”
In Oklahoma, Republican primary voters will pick a Senate nominee between Rep. James Lankford, an up-and-comer in the House Republican caucus, and T.W. Shannon, the state’s first black House speaker and a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
The Maryland primary for governor could be seen as a referendum for outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is considering a 2016 presidential bid. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is an O'Malley ally and would be counted on to continue O'Malley’s policies. Brown is favored over state lawmaker Heather Mizeur and state Attorney General Doug Gansler.