Thad Cochran Wins in Stunning Rebound Against Tea Party

McDaniel, in blistering concession speech, says “conservative movement took a back seat to liberal Democrats” in race.

MADISON, MS - JUNE 24: U.S. Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) walks by the kitchen at Mama Hamil's restaurant on June 24, 2014 in Madison, Mississippi. U.S. Senate incumbent U.S. Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) is fighting for his political life in a tight race against Tea Party-backed republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mississippi State Sen Chris McDaniel. 
National Journal
Alex Roarty
June 24, 2014, 7:04 p.m.

In a re­mark­able comeback for a can­did­ate many Re­pub­lic­ans had be­gun to write-off, Sen. Thad Co­chran won a sur­prise vic­tory Tues­day in Mis­sis­sippi’s Re­pub­lic­an run­off race for the Sen­ate, deal­ing a sting­ing blow to tea party-groups that con­sidered the six-term law­maker their best op­por­tun­ity to knock off a Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent in 2014.

He now moves on to face former Demo­crat­ic Con­gress­man Trav­is Childers in the gen­er­al elec­tion, a race Co­chran enters as the pro­hib­it­ive fa­vor­ite in red-state Mis­sis­sippi.

Co­chran’s vic­tory caps what has been the most heated show­down of the 2014 primary sea­son, a months-long battle that pit­ted con­ser­vat­ive chal­lenger Chris McDaniel and his al­lies — in­clud­ing groups like the Club for Growth and the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ive Fund — against Co­chran, an in­sti­tu­tion in Mis­sis­sippi polit­ics who had the back­ing of just about every in­flu­en­tial Re­pub­lic­an lead­er in the state and in Wash­ing­ton. The race has in­cluded al­leg­a­tions of crim­in­al wrong­do­ing, open ques­tions about Co­chran’s state of mind, and per­son­al in­sults dir­ec­ted both ways. Es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans spent mil­lions of dol­lars try­ing to pre­vent a vic­tory by McDaniel, whose his­tory of con­tro­ver­sial com­ments would not only jeop­ard­ize their hold over Mis­sis­sippi’s Sen­ate seat but also dam­age their can­did­ates else­where.

But those ef­forts looked doomed to fail after Co­chran didn’t win his June 3 primary. Be­cause both he and McDaniel fell short of 50 per­cent of the vote, both men entered a run­off race to be held three weeks later.

That was sup­posed to fa­vor the in­sur­gent state law­maker, who seemed to emerge with mo­mentum and con­fid­ence that his act­iv­ist base would turn out again on Tues­day while over­all turnout de­creased, as it usu­ally does in run­off elec­tions. Even some of Co­chran’s fiercest al­lies ap­peared to dial back their cri­ti­cism of McDaniel in the race’s clos­ing weeks, mind­ful that any cri­ti­cism against him could help the Demo­crats in a gen­er­al elec­tion.

But in a bril­liant stra­tegic ploy, Co­chran and his al­lies — not­ably, the Su­per PAC led by Henry Bar­bour — fo­cused their ef­forts on turn­ing out black voters in­stead of win­ning over act­iv­ists. Those voters, swayed by Co­chran’s pledges to con­tin­ue de­liv­er­ing fed­er­al money to the mostly poor, rur­al state ap­pear to have changed the com­pos­i­tion of the elect­or­ate enough to give Co­chran the win, ac­cord­ing to an as­sess­ment of the early vote tal­lies.

In Jack­son’s Hinds County, where two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion is black, Co­chran was win­ning 82 per­cent of the vote (with about half of pre­cincts re­port­ing). In the primary, he only tal­lied 66 per­cent of the vote. Turnout was up sig­ni­fic­antly in heav­ily Afric­an-Amer­ic­an counties in the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, like Quit­man and Coahoma, where Co­chran in­creased his mar­gins over McDaniel.

Be­fore the primary, most Mis­sis­sippi polit­ic­al ex­perts pre­dicted turnout would reach a high of about 250,000. On Tues­day, in a run­off race that usu­ally fea­tures a drop in turn out from the primary, more than 360,000 people voted — a re­mark­ably high turnout fig­ure that topped even the num­ber of people who voted in the 2012 GOP pres­id­en­tial primary there.

That strategy, however, is likely to en­gender dis­con­tent from con­ser­vat­ives un­happy that a Re­pub­lic­an primary was de­cided, at least in part, by Demo­crat­ic voters. It’s something McDaniel ref­er­enced dir­ectly in his con­ces­sion speech, in which he de­rided his GOP op­pon­ents “abandon­ing” the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment.

“There is something a bit strange, there is something a bit un­usu­al about a Re­pub­lic­an primary that is de­cided by lib­er­al Demo­crats,” McDaniel said, draw­ing big cheers from his sup­port­ers. “So much for bold col­ors. So much for prin­ciple.”

The state sen­at­or offered noth­ing in way of sup­port for Co­chran dur­ing his speech and in­stead noted what he said were “dozens” of ir­reg­u­lar­it­ies at the polls today. Cit­ing Mis­sis­sippi law, con­ser­vat­ives had ex­pressed con­cern be­fore the run­off that Demo­crats vot­ing on Tues­day would do so il­leg­ally.

“Today, the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment took a back seat to lib­er­al Demo­crats in the state of Mis­sis­sippi,” McDaniel said.

In the big­ger pic­ture, Co­chran’s vic­tory is also a ma­jor coup for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. McDaniel was last of the can­did­ates they feared could win the party’s nom­in­a­tion who could emerge as a Todd Akin-like fig­ure — someone who could give Demo­crats a chance even in Deep South Mis­sis­sippi. Worse, they feared any­thing con­tro­ver­sial he said would go na­tion­al in the same way Akin’s com­ment about rape did in 2012, dam­aging the party’s chances of re­tak­ing the Sen­ate.

Re­pub­lic­ans have now re­ceived the can­did­ate they wanted — or at least avoided the ones they didn’t want — in a host of battle­grounds with com­pet­it­ive primar­ies: Geor­gia, Iowa, North Car­o­lina, Col­or­ado, New Hamp­shire and, now, Mis­sis­sippi. There are still a hand­ful of primar­ies left — most not­ably, a three-way Re­pub­lic­an battle in Alaska — but Re­pub­lic­ans are con­fid­ent they pose little threat to their pre­ferred can­did­ates.

That’s an im­port­ant mile­stone for the NR­SC and GOP lead­ers, and breaks a streak of two con­sec­ut­ive elec­tion cycles in which Re­pub­lic­ans squandered win­nable Sen­ate seats with ra­dio­act­ive nom­in­ees (Christine O’Don­nell in Delaware and Shar­ron Angle in Nevada in 2010, Akin in Mis­souri and Richard Mour­dock in In­di­ana in 2012).

Josh Kraushaar contributed to this article.
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