How Mississippi Democrats and GOP bigwigs helped Thad Cochran win

Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi prevailed Tuesday in the GOP primary against tea party challenger Chris McDaniel. He pulled off the upset with help from black Democratic voters and GOP establishment figures.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, right, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves celebrate Cochran's runoff election win over state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, in the primary runoff for the GOP nomination for senate, Tuesday, June 24, 2014 in Jackson, Miss.

In an improbable ending to a wild race, six-term Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi defeated tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in a primary runoff vote – and did so with a critical assist from Democratic voters, many of them African-American.

Senator Cochran’s upset victory Tuesday dealt a major blow to the national tea party movement, which had appeared poised to knock out a longtime Senate Republican incumbent for the third election cycle in a row. Cochran is best known in the Senate as a quiet “workhorse,” skilled at directing federal dollars to Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation.  

Just three weeks ago, Cochran’s 42-year political career looked to be finished. He had come in second behind Mr. McDaniel, a state senator, in the June 3 primary. Because neither had won a majority, the race went to a runoff. That’s when the Cochran campaign and key outside groups rewrote the playbook, aided by emergency fundraising by top GOP establishment figures in Washington.

Team Cochran was convinced that many of the senator’s supporters had failed to vote on June 3, assuming the longtime incumbent would beat the tea party upstart. So the campaign, including field staff from the Republicans’ national Senate campaign committee, doubled down on voter outreach to reliable Republican voters.

More controversially, pro-Cochran forces also reached out to black voters throughout Mississippi, including the state’s heavily black Delta region. Though African-Americans vote solidly Democratic, they were eligible to vote in the GOP runoff as long as they had not voted in their party’s primary three weeks ago. The gambit paid off.

“There's no doubt that a big Democrat Delta crossover by mostly black areas gave Sen. Thad Cochran a big upset victory, which no poll predicted,” writes Jay O’Callaghan, a veteran Republican election analyst, in an e-mail.

The numbers tell the story. In Jefferson County, a Delta county where black voters represent the largest share of eligible voters in the state, Cochran went from 123 votes on June 3 to 321 votes on Tuesday. McDaniel’s vote in the county also went up, but not by nearly as much. Multiply that trend across the state, and Cochran wins.  

Overall, Cochran won Tuesday by about 6,400 votes, after losing three weeks ago by fewer than 1,400 votes. Turnout for the runoff was higher than in the June 3 primary, bucking the conventional wisdom on voter behavior.

Henry Barbour, head of a pro-Cochran "super political action committee" that invested in outreach to African-Americans, says the senator’s victory was driven by Republican voters, but Democrats clearly played a role.

“No doubt independents and Democrats helped put us over the top,” Mr. Barbour says in an e-mail. “And I am convinced many of those Democratic voters who voted for the first time in a Republican primary now see the GOP a little differently. A lot of them are quite conservative on many issues – it’s a fascinating development.”

The surprise tea party defeat of the Republicans’ No. 2 leader in the US House, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, in his June 10 primary also likely played a role in spurring additional turnout for Cochran in the runoff. Mississippi tea partyers were also energized by Congressman Cantor’s loss, but they were already energized for the June 3 primary and had less room to grow their vote.  

McDaniel was defiant in defeat, declining to concede the race Tuesday night.

“We are not prone to surrender, we Mississippians,” McDaniel told his supporters at his election night party in Hattiesburg, Miss. “Before this race is over, we have to be absolutely certain the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”

Under Mississippi law, voters who participate in a party’s primary must intend to vote for that party’s nominee in the general election. But in 2008, a federal appeals court ruled that the law is unenforceable.

So it appears that McDaniel has limited options – though in his speech Tuesday night, he suggested he might challenge the outcome, citing “dozens of irregularities.” The optics of McDaniel contesting the votes of black Mississippians could be unseemly in a state with a fraught racial history.

As it was, an effort by the McDaniel campaign and conservative organizations to post “election monitors” at polling places raised awkward echoes of Mississippi’s past. Some people who had voted in the Democratic primary three weeks ago tried to vote on June 24, but were turned away without incident. 

Leaders of national tea party groups were inconsolable after Cochran’s victory.

"It's disgraceful that self-described GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell, John McCain, the Chamber of Commerce, and the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee] would champion a campaign platform of pork-barrel spending and insider dealmaking, while recruiting Democrats to show up at the polls,” said Matt Kibbe, president of the tea party group FreedomWorks.

Mississippi Democrats have their own nominee for the November election, former Rep. Travis Childers. If McDaniel had won on Tuesday, political analysts saw the Democrats as having an outside chance of victory in November. But with Cochran on the ballot, the seat is now considered safe for Republicans.

In Mississippi, Republicans have their work cut out for them in reuniting a party riven by the divisive spectacle of the Cochran-McDaniel primary. Nationally, too, the GOP’s divisions are as stark as ever.

“The narrative coming out of Cochran’s victory will be that the ‘establishment strikes back,’ ” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “The duel between the Hatfields and McCoys of the Republican Party is far from settled.”

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