WASHINGTON, June 25, 2014 — Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran won a tight GOP runoff race Tuesday night. Neither he nor challenger Chris McDaniel broke the 50 percent barrier in the state’s June 3 primary, ending that contest in a statistical dead heat at just over 49 percent of the vote each and forcing the runoff election.
Cochran held a small, shrinking, and stubborn lead throughout the night. After the first precincts reported, his lead was 55-45, and it kept going down from there. It shrank to under 1 percent with about 90 percent of the precincts reporting, but in the end, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, he held 50.8 percent of the vote to McDaniel’s 49.2 percent.
McDaniel has not yet conceded the race. In a speech to supporters in Hattiesburg, he talked about “dozens of irregularities” in the vote, and said, “We are not prone to surrender, we Mississippians. Before this race is over we have to be absolutely certain the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”
His comment referred to the Democratic voters who supported Cochran in the runoff. Cochran issued a strong appeal to black voters, and to urban women, two groups that typically go strongly Democratic. He emphasized his efforts to bring federal funds for jobs to Mississippi, to fund Head Start programs, and his support of health centers used most heavily by African-Americans. Cochran’s supporters spread word that McDaniel would cut food stamps and reject school funding.
They made this a Democrat-Republican contest, with Cochran as the Democrat.
McDaniel may have hoped that the primary results would energize his supporters. Ideologically focused candidates often find their support amplified in runoff elections, a phenomenon that propelled Texas’s Ted Cruz from a second-place finish in his primary to a strong win in the runoff.
But Cruz picked up the support of others who ran in the primary who had their own bases of support. The third candidate in the Mississippi primary won just over 1 percent of the vote, enough to force a runoff, but a runoff that was essentially a rematch. He had no support to give either candidate and was a non-factor this time around.
McDaniel got little or no “Cruz effect,” and Cochran went after Democrats aggressively. The Democratic nominee, Travis Childers, is not expected to have much chance in November, making the runoff the real election.
Last night’s results are being seen as a loss for the Tea Party, which poured resources into the race with new energy after Eric Cantor’s loss in Virginia. That is not an accurate assessment; had the race been closed to Democrats, McDaniel would have won. The Tea Party is a force among Mississippi Republicans; it was defeated by Mississippi Democrats choosing their favorite Republican.
This could create a problem for Republicans. National Republicans were reportedly afraid that a McDaniel victory would put a Republican victory in Mississippi at risk. Arizona Senator John McCain went to Mississippi to stump for Cochran, who also had the support of former Governor Haley Barber, the most powerful politician in the state.
That fear was nonsense. Had Democrats really believed that McDaniel would be more vulnerable than Cochran, they would have been more likely to support him, just as they supported Tom Tancredo in Colorado to the tune of over half-a-million dollars, hoping to make him the Republican nominee for governor and an almost certain loser against incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper.
Now conservatives in Mississippi have a good reason to feel hostile to the GOP establishment and to not vote in November. Cochran will find himself odious to conservative Republicans in the Senate, and as the GOP has become more conservative, he may well find himself on the periphery.
That may be unimportant to the 76-year-old Cochran, who may be content to be a place-holder for six years, but it should matter to the GOP. The Tea Party did not win many primaries outright this year, but in large part that was because in many states, the GOP establishment is more conservative and supported candidates who were less likely to create revulsion among Tea Party voters. To win elections by appealing to Democratic interests will energize Tea Party Republicans and other conservatives, not beat them into line.
McDaniel may contest last night’s results. His comments were not conciliatory. His supporters are calling for a write-in campaign, which he would lose, but it would have the potential to fracture the Mississippi GOP. The national GOP has some bridge-building to do, and they’ll have to begin by proving to conservatives that Thad Cochran is not a Democrat.