At a catfish buffet dinner recently, Jackie Shirley said that the night Eric Cantor lost his GOP primary was the first time she'd paid attention to the news in a long while -- so exciting it was to see a top Republican toppled by a tea party unknown.
Now, the hospital fitness center director is hoping for the same outcome Tuesday in Mississippi, as Republican Sen. Thad Cochran struggles for the party nomination against upstart Chris McDaniel.
"People are waking up," Shirley said at a highway restaurant serving catfish and hush puppies, where McDaniel held a meet-and-greet with voters in the week before Tuesday's runoff election. "The momentum is just getting started."
The Mississippi race has top billing Tuesday, a primary election day that also has competitive contests in New York's 13th Congressional District in Harlem, where 84-year-old Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel faces a tough challenge from up-and-coming state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, and in Oklahoma where two Republicans, Rep. James Lankford, the Oklahoma City-area congressman, and T.W. Shannon, the African American former state House speaker, are vying for the nomination for the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Tom Coburn.
But it is across Mississippi where the ripples from Cantor's loss to underdog economics professor Dave Brat have been felt so strongly on the campaign trail, as tea party enthusiasts pour into the Magnolia State, giving McDaniel's campaign a burst of energy before Tuesday's runoff election.
McDaniel, a previously little-known state senator from the GOP's conservative wing, has been capitalizing on Cantor's ouster as he tries to buck an establishment that is all in for Cochran. Neither candidate cleared the 50% threshold earlier this month in the first round of voting.
"Do you feel it?" McDaniel asked a roomful of supporters, mentioning the Virginia race at a recent stop near Biloxi. "They ain't seen nothing yet."
Cochran's campaign has argued that the six-term senator's seniority can bring resources to the poor state that McDaniel could never match.
And if voters were unaware that McDaniel had previously referred to Mexican women as "mamacita" or suggested a female was "using her breasts to run for office," they might now. Cochran's campaign strung together the challenger's greatest hits of off-color remarks in a web ad quietly released in the final week before Tuesday's primary.
"Chris McDaniel, you are done," said the hard-hitting effort from Cochran.
But whether the tactic will win over fence-sitters remains to be seen in the final hours of the election. The six-term Cochran has struggled to gain ground against firebrand McDaniel's anti-establishment message.
The McDaniel campaign has brushed off his past comments, mostly from the state senator's time as a radio talk show host, as ancient history.
McDaniel backers appear more interested in his promise that Mississippi's conservative values will ascend again.
Retired nurse Natalie Howard, who waited for the chance to meet McDaniel at a breakfast stop near her home in Ocean Springs, was hopeful a McDaniel win will bolster other tea party candidates in a midterm election cycle that until Cantor's loss had seen mostly setbacks for the movement.
"This race may teach a lot of people that [the] tea party is not full of nut cases," she said. "We're regular people."
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