Mississippi Runoff: Thad Cochran's Last Hurrah?

Mississippi Runoff: Thad Cochran's Last Hurrah?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 24, 2014

For the second time in three weeks, Thad Cochran is facing the prospect of becoming the first incumbent senator to lose a re-election bid this cycle.

But unlike the June 3 GOP primary in Mississippi, which Cochran narrowly lost, there will be no second chances in Tuesday’s runoff. This could well be the 36-year Senate veteran’s last hurrah.

A small pool of polls shows state Sen. Chris McDaniel leading him heading into Election Day 2.0. The RealClearPolitics polling average finds the insurgent with a 6.3 percentage-point advantage.

In their first contest, the 76-year-old lawmaker fell behind his 41-year-old conservative challenger by a few thousand votes. But since neither candidate garnered 50 percent of the vote, the contentious and divisive battle was extended.

Cochran’s prospects didn’t look good then, and they haven’t improved in the interim. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor succumbed to an upstart challenger two weeks ago in a stunning race that may have altered the prevailing narrative about the Tea Party’s waning influence in primaries.

McDaniel has seized on Cantor’s loss in Virginia to energize supporters in his home state, referencing that outcome during campaign stops and reminding voters that “shock waves” can happen in this GOP primary, too. Club for Growth, a conservative group that has spent heavily on the Mississippi race, started running ads in the state immediately after the Cantor defeat, accusing Cochran of feeling entitled to the seat he’s held for over three decades and losing touch with voters.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Cochran never really adjusted his re-election strategy to either align with or combat head-on the so-called Tea Party insurgency. Asked about Cantor’s loss a couple of days afterward, Cochran said he didn’t know about the huge upset. His comment to a Fox News reporter was noteworthy, given his own predicament: “Members of Congress -- some win, some lose. It’s not an automatic proposition that you get re-elected just because you’ve done a good job.”

The incumbent’s campaign hasn’t significantly altered its message since the first round of voting and Cantor’s demise. Cochran has continued to tout his experience and clout in Washington, playing up federal dollars he has helped secure for the state, focusing on military bases and areas hit by natural disasters. Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell said the campaign has invested heavily in a "sophisticated ground game,” and he insisted that supporters who didn’t know how endangered the senator is stayed home last time. 

McDaniel, meanwhile, has continued to campaign against longtime incumbency and complacency, calling for new blood and a more spirited fighter in the upper chamber.

In an unexpected twist, Cochran is courting the black vote to help expand his support in what is expected to be a low-turnout race.

His team has also enlisted the help of several establishment figures. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate’s campaign arm held a fundraiser for Cochran in Washington. John McCain came to Mississippi on Monday to talk about veterans’ issues, which are of importance to this military-heavy state. The Arizona senator told supporters gathered at the Mississippi War Memorial in Jackson that the eyes of the nation and the world would be on the runoff.

Underscoring this theme, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recently appeared in a TV ad highlighting the senator’s service in the Navy, saying, “Let us honor Thad’s service as a veteran and for the good job he’s doing serving Mississippi now.”

And Cochran himself hammered the point further, pledging to supporters in the Gulf Coast city of Biloxi over the weekend that he would not cut military spending to balance the budget.

McDaniel zeroed in on his opponent’s appearance with McCain, saying in an email to supporters that “when you total up the amount of time that Cochran and McCain have been in the Senate, you get 62 years. They've been in Washington for a combined 72 years. That's a long time, and a long list of appropriations.”

High-profile figures from well outside of Washington have weighed in on the race. Last week, legendary NFL quarterback Brett Favre, a Mississippi native, appeared in a Chamber of Commerce ad backing Cochran. “I’ve learned through football that strong leadership makes the difference between winning and losing,” he says in the spot. “And when it comes to our state’s future, trust me: Mississippi can win -- and win big -- with Thad Cochran as our strong voice in Washington.”

Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum came to the state to campaign for McDaniel in the runoff. Sarah Palin and Ron Paul have also endorsed him. Members of the Duggar family -- Santorum supporters from the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting” -- are backing the challenger. And former game show host Chuck Woolery joined McDaniel’s campaign tour in the final days.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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