VICKSBURG, Mississippi (Reuters) - It is not shaping up as a great year for the conservative Tea Party movement as it seeks to revamp the Republican Party by challenging "establishment" Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
The Tea Party's assault on Senator John Cornyn fell short in the Texas primaries last month, and recent polls indicate that the movement's candidates are unlikely to oust incumbents in Kentucky, Tennessee and Kansas.
But the Tea Party's outlook is considerably better in Mississippi. The stars appear to have aligned for Chris McDaniel, a state senator who is waging a primary battle against Thad Cochran, who is seeking his seventh six-year term in the Senate.
Polls show a close race two months before the June 3 Republican primary, and an army of Tea Party activists are canvassing Mississippi voters for McDaniel. Money has flooded in, with national Tea Party-affiliated groups such as Club for Growth spending close to $1 million to support him.
For the Tea Party, the stakes in McDaniel's race are huge. If it can unseat a popular incumbent like Cochran, it can claim relevance within the Republican Party even though setbacks elsewhere indicate the movement that burst into American politics in 2010 is losing some momentum amid a backlash from the more moderate Republican establishment.
Since Cochran, 76, was first elected to the Senate in 1978, he rarely has faced a significant challenge and has not needed the type of broad fundraising effort that is typical of Senate campaigns today.
With help from the national groups, McDaniel, 41, has closed the fundraising gap between himself and the incumbent in a way that few Tea Party challengers have been able to. He raised nearly $500,000 during the fourth quarter; Cochran brought in $740,000 for the entire year.
Mississippi seems an almost ideal state for a challenge such as McDaniel's. It is a small state with only about 3 million people, a manageable landscape for an upstart campaign. It also is a hotbed of Tea Party activism: According to Gallup polling, only Wyoming is more conservative.
Cochran's strength is rooted in his familiarity to voters and in his ability to bring federal dollars for military projects and other programs to a state that U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate has poverty rates among the nation's highest and personal incomes among the lowest. The senator's supporters also point to federal aid Cochran helped secure for Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
McDaniel and other fiscal conservatives in the Tea Party movement describe the Cochran largesse as the kind of "pork" spending that is driving the United States deeper into debt.
McDaniel has acknowledged that he probably would have voted for the popular $10 billion Katrina aid package that Congress approved for Gulf Coast states, but has said some of the money was misspent.
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell says McDaniel's primary challenge will have ramifications for the Tea Party well beyond Mississippi, especially when it comes to fundraising.
"These conservative groups need Thad Cochran's head on their mantle if they want to remain credible with donors," O'Connell said. "And the Tea Party movement badly needs a shot in the arm to fire them up for the election."
Mississippi's Republican hierarchy, including former Governor Haley Barbour and two of his nephews, has rallied around Cochran.
The senator's supporters say what McDaniel advocates - especially a low, flat federal tax rate, less regulation and less federal money - is too far right even for Mississippi conservatives. They say a McDaniel victory in the Republican primary would put the party in danger of losing a Senate seat it should win easily, and complicate efforts to wrest control of the chamber from Democrats.
Cochran's backers cite the example of Richard Mourdock, who unseated six-term Republican Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana's 2012 primary. Mourdock lost in the general election to a Democrat after making comments about rape and abortion that many saw as insensitive to women.
Republicans need a net gain of six Senate seats to take over that chamber from Democrats. A Democrat has not won a Senate race in Mississippi since 1982.
Democratic Party polling in February showed McDaniel at 44 percent and Cochran at 43 percent, bad news for the incumbent. Despite such numbers, leaders in both parties believe Travis Childers, the likely Democratic nominee, would have a better chance of beating McDaniel than Cochran.
During a recent town hall meeting in the Gulf Coast community of Ocean Springs, the most applause for McDaniel came when he mentioned Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who is a darling of the Tea Party movement.
For Tea Party activists in Mississippi, Cruz is a model senator because of his efforts last fall against President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul. Establishment Republicans opposed Obamacare, too, just not as vigorously, and the Tea Party is trying to punish Cochran for not standing with Cruz.
"It was an embarrassment to us that no senator from a state as conservative as Mississippi fought for our principles," said Robert Peters of the Vicksburg Tea Party, who is leading local volunteer efforts for McDaniel's campaign.
McDaniel's stump speech, sprinkled with references to Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge, is delivered in a folksy, humorous style similar to that of another Tea Party favorite, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
For McDaniel to win, he will have to persuade Mississippi voters that the state would be better off without as much help from the federal government. Democrats hope that McDaniel continues to stress that point.
"If that federal money is cut off, things would turn really Third World around here really quickly," said Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole.
Cochran's supporters praise the senator for quietly bringing federal dollars to the state.
"Yes, we worked together to bring money to Mississippi," said former Mississippi senator Trent Lott, a Republican who is backing Cochran's reelection bid. "What's wrong with that?"
Cochran has not had a competitive race since 1978, when he became only the second man since World War II to win his seat.
Marvin King, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi, suggested Cochran became vulnerable by being too complacent and failing to learn from successful Tea Party primary challenges elsewhere.
"Senator Cochran opened himself up to a challenge by not raising enough money over the last six years," King said.
Cochran had $1.1 million in campaign cash at the end of 2013, compared with $315,000 for McDaniel. The gap was daunting, but it paled in comparison to the buffer that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's $10.9 million had in Kentucky over Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin, who had just more than $500,000. McConnell has a big lead in polls.
Mississippi "is the perfect environment for a primary challenge to a sitting senator," said Henry Barbour, Haley's nephew, who heads Mississippi Conservatives, a political action committee that has spent nearly $600,000 on pro-Cochran television ads. "Washington is broke, everyone knows it, and people want change."
One disadvantage for Cochran is his weakness on the campaign stump. At a recent event at Mississippi State University, whose president is the senator's former chief of staff, Cochran read a short speech gamely but uncomfortably. He did not engage in the type of give-and-take with his audience that is a staple of McDaniel's campaign appearances.
A Republican strategist familiar with the campaign said Cochran was unlikely to debate McDaniel.
"You don't want Cochran standing beside a young, hungry politician," the strategist said. "The optics wouldn't be good."
The University of Mississippi's King said Cochran's "strength has never been in public speaking; his strength has been in delivering more federal aid than the state would otherwise have received."
Noting that buildings across Mississippi, including a research center on his campus, carry Cochran's name, King said: "He has great name recognition."
Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by David Lindsey and Lisa Von Ahn