GOP establishment wonders: Is it time to abandon Thad Cochran?

Realistically, Cochran’s got maybe a 10 percent chance of winning the runoff. McDaniel’s base is excited to knock off the incumbent and outside groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund are prepared to keep pumping in money to send a conservative to the Senate. Cochran’s base, which includes lots of casual voters who favor him for name-recognition reasons alone, probably can’t be bothered to trudge to the polls for the second time in three weeks. That’s why insurgent candidates almost always pull the upset once they make it to a runoff. The only way to get Cochran voters back out there on June 24th is for his allies to spend boatloads more money tearing down McDaniel and promoting Cochran. And if it doesn’t work and McDaniel wins the runoff anyway, then you’ve spent three more weeks tearing your party’s new nominee apart for no reason.

The NRSC insists it’s “all in” for Cochran, but don’t kid yourself. They’re saying that as a precaution, until Team Establishment can huddle and come to a decision. They may end up going in again for Cochran, but rest assured, it won’t be “all in.” And some outfits, like Karl Rove’s group American Crossroads, won’t go in at all.

“The Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund will bankrupt themselves just to make their point. The NRSC, the chamber don’t have that luxury—they’re looking at a Republican majority,” one pro-Cochran strategist said…

American Crossroads, for one, announced Wednesday afternoon that it wouldn’t get involved in the contentious runoff. “We have completed our work on Senate primaries this cycle … this is not our fight,” spokesman Paul Lindsay said. Crossroads didn’t air ads in the primary, but it donated $120,000 to the pro-Cochran super PAC Mississippi Conservatives, according to Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, who runs the group.

Cochran faces disadvantages in the runoff that range from his lethargic campaign effort to the likelihood of a smaller, more-conservative turnout in three weeks and the prohibition on Democratic crossover voters participating in the election.

Establishment groups are reportedly meeting today to decide how to play it. At a minimum, it sounds like they’re going to stop trying to tie McDaniel to that repellent invasion of Mrs. Cochran’s privacy in her nursing home, since obviously they don’t want to hurt the likely nominee at this point any more than they have to. The campaign from here on out will be strictly (or mostly) pro-Cochran, not anti-McD. But look: Given the long odds and the fact that Cochran palpably didn’t want to run this race in the first place, isn’t backing off and letting the guy magnanimously concede the decent thing to do at this point? C’mon.

Cochran created his own problems, too, frustrating national Republicans last year by wringing his hands over whether to retire and surprising many in the Republican establishment when he announced in late December, two months after McDaniel announced his campaign, that he would seek reelection to a seventh term.

“I don’t think Cochran was as prepared for this challenge as other incumbents who have dealt with similar challenges. He didn’t have a lot of money or a real campaign infrastructure,” says a strategist for the McDaniel campaign. Mississippi heavyweights such as former governor Haley Barbour and his sons, Austin and Henry; the state’s current governor, Phil Bryant; and former Senate majority leader Trent Lott all stepped in to boost Cochran.

Cochran supporters worked to turn out Democratic voters, placing an ad in a Jackson-based newspaper with a largely African-American readership. (That strategy is limited in the next three weeks because Mississippi election law forbids anybody who voted in Tuesday’s Democratic primary from voting in the runoff election of the opposite party.) In the end, though, even his strongest backers were expressing reservations.

Sure sounds to me like he wanted to retire, was fully prepared to, but then was begged by establishment GOPers both inside and outside of Mississippi after the shutdown in October to hang on just a bit longer in the name of crushing the tea-party challenge back home. For all his weaknesses on the stump, running a long-time incumbent like Cochran again was obviously the best play for pro-pork, pro-business-lobby Republicans to thwart a guy who’s positioning himself as another “defund”-style Cruz conservative. They propped Cochran up with an on-the-fly reelection campaign, he played along, and together they almost pulled it off. Almost. Why not pat the guy on the back for pouring 40 years’ worth of federal dollars into the trough in Mississippi and let him play golf instead of running him around for another month? Especially since, if they’re not “all in” against McDaniel, Cochran’s odds of winning are even smaller than everyone expects.

In lieu of an exit question, read Philip Klein on why the tea party’s already won in Mississippi regardless of what happens in the runoff. The goal here, always, is to pressure Republicans in Congress into voting a more conservative line. The best way to do that is to elect conservatives, but merely scaring the shinola out of an incumbent in a losing effort is enough to make the rest of the caucus sit up and take notice.