It’s the scenario that Republicans on both sides of Mississippi’s hard-fought primary battle had hoped to avoid: Neither candidate in Tuesday’s primary captured 50 percent of the vote, sending the race into a June 24 runoff election.
It was a virtually unknown candidate, real-estate broker Thomas Carey of Hernando, Miss., who determined the outcome: With 99.5 percent of precincts reporting, he had captured 1.6 percent of the vote, keeping both incumbent senator Thad Cochran, with 48.8 percent, and his insurgent challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel, with 49.6 percent, under the 50 percent margin required to seize victory. Into the wee hours of the morning, Cochran advisers were predicting the senator will wind up with a lead when the last votes are counted. Regardless, it won’t be enough to push him over the 50 percent mark.
A runoff election gives McDaniel a second chance to pick off the 76-year-old Cochran. He has the wind at his back: Turnout in runoff elections is historically low and tends to favor challengers, whose supporters tend to be more motivated.
That’s why, when McDaniel addressed his supporters in Hattiesburg, Miss., shortly after midnight Wednesday, he delivered what could easily have been mistaken for a victory speech.
“Oh, my goodness, what a wonderful night,” he said. The state senator from Ellisville, Miss., a city of approximately 5,000, has cast himself as the true conservative in the race and sought to characterize Cochran as a historical relic, an appropriator and a compromiser who has proved unwilling to take the fight to President Obama.
McDaniel declared the outcome of the race a “historic moment in the state’s history.” Cochran, by contrast, did not appear to address his supporters.
National Republican groups must now decide whether to redouble their efforts on Cochran’s behalf and risk damaging McDaniel if he becomes the nominee in what has already been a highly personal race. The decision is made more agonizing by the fact that continuing to hammer McDaniel may have a high cost: Democrats recruited a potentially competitive nominee in the deep-red state, former representative Travis Childers, a pro-life, pro-gun legislator they believe can mount a credible campaign against McDaniel.
The outcome in Mississippi is unquestionably a victory for the GOP’s tea-party wing. Many have argued that the overarching narrative of the 2014 election cycle is of the Republican establishment vanquishing the Tea Party. The party’s insurgent forces, though, have put up a fight in only four major races: in Kentucky, where they tried and failed to unseat Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell; in Idaho, where they attempted unsuccessfully to oust representative Mike Simpson; in Nebraska, where they defeated the establishment-backed candidate, Shane Osborn; and in Mississippi, where McDaniel’s performance means a victory now hangs in the balance.
The 2014 cycle, says a top Republican strategist, is “very comparable to previous cycles where the tea-party candidates win a relatively small number of races, which is what they’ve always done in very tough primaries.”
But McDaniel strikes fear in the Republican establishment and even among some of his supporters because he is relatively untested; comments unearthed from his time as a radio talk-show host evoked the specter of failed candidacies in winnable races, like those of Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In one exchange, McDaniel discussed the possibility of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. “If they pass reparations, and my taxes are going up, I ain’t paying taxes,” he said, urging listeners to move to Mexico. “You know, a dollar bill can buy a mansion in Mexico.”
The McDaniel campaign suffered a major setback — and exacerbated those reservations — when a McDaniel supporter was arrested last month for breaking into the nursing home of Cochran’s bedridden wife in an attempt to produce a hit video on the senator. Three others have since been indicted in connection with the incident.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, though, and despite the Cochran camp’s attempts to tie him to the scandal, McDaniel rebounded.
If he emerges victorious later this month, he will have accomplished a feat that hasn’t been performed in Mississippi in over six decades: defeating a sitting senator running for reelection. That last happened in the Democratic primary of 1942, when James Eastland defeated Wall Doxey, who had served in the Senate for just two years.
Picking off Cochran, who has served in the Senate for 38 years, would certainly be a more impressive accomplishment. If McDaniel pulls it off, he can thank an influx of money from outside groups that marked Cochran as the most vulnerable establishment-GOP incumbent. McDaniel received over $5.2 million from groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, compared with approximately $700,000 in individual contributions, a ratio of more than seven to one. Cochran also received support from out-of-state groups: Organizations such as the National Association of Realtors and the American Hospital Association spent over $2.7 million to support him, while he raised nearly $1.8 million from individual donors. Cochran’s ratio of out-of-state to in-state money was far lower, but more than a third of his individual contributions came from registered lobbyists in the Washington, D.C., area, including those employed by the liberal Podesta Group, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics in late February.
Cochran created his own problems, too, frustrating national Republicans last year by wringing his hands over whether to retire and surprising many in the Republican establishment when he announced in late December, two months after McDaniel announced his campaign, that he would seek reelection to a seventh term.
“I don’t think Cochran was as prepared for this challenge as other incumbents who have dealt with similar challenges. He didn’t have a lot of money or a real campaign infrastructure,” says a strategist for the McDaniel campaign. Mississippi heavyweights such as former governor Haley Barbour and his sons, Austin and Henry; the state’s current governor, Phil Bryant; and former Senate majority leader Trent Lott all stepped in to boost Cochran.
Cochran supporters worked to turn out Democratic voters, placing an ad in a Jackson-based newspaper with a largely African-American readership. (That strategy is limited in the next three weeks because Mississippi election law forbids anybody who voted in Tuesday’s Democratic primary from voting in the runoff election of the opposite party.) In the end, though, even his strongest backers were expressing reservations.
“Senator Cochran has a small lead, but the McDaniel supporters are absolutely going to turn out to vote,” Henry Barbour wrote in an e-mail to supporters on Friday. “I worry that too many Cochran voters think he has it in the bag. That is not the case. A low-turnout election would spell defeat for Senator Cochran.”
In the runoff later this month, the turnout will be low indeed, and both sides are preparing for the fight. “We grew up on runoffs in Ms. This will be fun. Let’s go,” Cochran adviser Stuart Stevens said in a tweet. McDaniel assured his supporters, “Whether it’s tonight, whether it’s tomorrow, we will stand victorious in this race.”
— Eliana Johnson is a political reporter for National Review Online.