The Republican U.S. Senate primary race in Mississippi between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel has been portrayed as a battle of the traditional Republicans versus the insurgent Tea Party. It ended in a virtual draw. There will be a runoff. But even that won't establish the "trend" that so many believe they see.
Contrary to much media, Mississippi is not on fire and there is no new outbreak of the Civil War there. (But there's plenty of media making that trite comparison.)
Sen. Cochran is a longtime Republican soldier. He says in so many words that he is weary. And he might as well have lost outright this past week except for some blogger who allegedly broke into a nursing home and filmed Cochran's invalid wife and put at least one image on the Internet. This hurt McDaniel's candidacy.
The take from all this is that Mississippi was, is, and will for some time continue to be a conservative state. Neither Cochran nor McDaniel is going to change that. Many pundits miss that the Republican primary in the Magnolia State is, in important ways, like a glorified state party convention. It's misleading for analysts to read too much into this race and try to apply its "lessons" to other regions.
If there's an underlying trend in this state, as in others, it's President Barack Obama. Increasingly Americans see him as inept, disorganized and maybe even ambivalent about his own country. His administration's trade of a single American soldier for five of the Taliban's brain trust, and the unflattering profile of the American soldier that is emerging, may well be the political turning point that gives the GOP control of the U.S. Senate.
But today's situation in Mississippi is reminiscent of the GOP transition in the years 1976-1980. A firebrand Ronald Reagan was thought to be wild and dangerous by the country club crowd that backed Gerald Ford. (Though, at least Ford was more conservative than his predecessor, Richard Nixon, who gave us such gifts as the EPA.)
In those late 70s, the various GOP factions staggered and stammered around as they watched Regan move the party in a new direction. What is today being called a rupture of the GOP that could keep the party from ever winning back the White House may instead be no more than the same dynamic that played out in the 70s.
At that time, there was President Jimmy Carter, along with double-digit inflation, the Iranian hostages and a general "malaise," as it was dubbed at the time. But as this column has often noted, Carter inherited much of the malaise. And certainly neither Reagan nor anyone else thought to question Carter's patriotism.
The outcome of all this is that Carter was no match for the confidence and optimism that Regan exuded.
In Mississippi, it's simply the old guard against the next generation, plain and simple. Cochran, the veteran, was Mississippi's second GOP U.S. representative since Reconstruction, and has done immeasurable good. And his reputation is bolstered further by his friendship with the legendary Haley Barbour, whose achievements in Southern politics are as impressive as anyone in our lifetime.
Politics is about power. Those who get it and those get left out of it. Chris McDaniel's candidacy against Thad Cochran is about an upstart who wants to make himself "the establishment."
Look at Marco Rubio in Florida. Running for U.S. Senate against GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, Rubio was deemed a tea party outsider. But Crist was like a Southern pine tree, soaring high over no real roots. The irony is that Rubio won and is now the Republican mainstream.
Insiders believe Cochran -- who never even spoke to his followers at the end of election night -- is getting tired, with little desire for another three weeks of slugfest with his younger challenger. If so, McDaniel may be the youth that revitalizes his party. But that's all.