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Cochran Wins in Mississippi as Incumbency Prevails

Cochran Wins in Mississippi as Incumbency Prevails

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 25, 2014

The exhaustive Mississippi Senate primary ended in an upset Tuesday night -- but not the kind where the longtime incumbent loses to a fiery insurgent.

Instead, 36-year veteran Thad Cochran, who campaigned on his Washington credentials and broadened the electorate by appealing to Democratic-leaning voters in the state, prevailed over Tea Party-backed Chris McDaniel in a runoff election.

But a bitter McDaniel refused to concede, and lashed out at the Cochran camp for courting Democratic voters in a Republican primary. Mississippi law doesn’t allow for a recount, but McDaniel hinted at some kind of challenge. “We’ll see you soon,” he said at the end of an angry speech just before midnight.

Cochran’s win -- by some 6,000 votes -- came after many observers had already drafted his political obituary. Several events had signaled doom for Cochran: He had placed a close second in the June 3 primary; polling heading into the runoff was against him; most of the money flooding the state from outside groups was spent on McDaniel’s behalf; turnout was expected to be low; and Eric Cantor’s recent loss in Virginia hovered over other establishment figures ingrained in Washington.

But conventional wisdom also went down to defeat Tuesday night. Turnout was nearly 10 percent higher than it was in the first round earlier this month. And a man who had spent 42 years in Congress and once considered not running for a seventh term emerged victorious, signaling that seniority in Washington and what it brings still resonates with voters, even in a conservative, Southern state like Mississippi.

Still, two fundamentals of elections held true: campaigns matter, and so do voters.

During the runoff, the Cochran campaign cultivated support from African-American voters who typically vote Democratic, convincing them that the incumbent Republican would serve them better than a conservative one, especially on issues like education and federal spending. (Voters can cross party lines in Mississippi primaries.)

Operating under the assumption that many of the senator’s supporters stayed home on June 3 because they did not realize how vulnerable he was, Cochran’s camp also invested in an extensive get-out-the-vote effort. In a campaign with a retro feel to it, Cochran and his team worked their personal networks to reach these voters -- and it paid off.

The larger electorate benefited Cochran, who campaigned on a time-honored, if rusty, theme: that longtime incumbency is a benefit to Mississippians and not a hindrance. Throughout the race, Cochran talked about money he brought back to the Magnolia State, which relies heavily on federal funding.

The GOP establishment also rallied ardently behind him, moving to protect one of their own but also animated by a concern that the firebrand style of McDaniel -- and other Tea Party candidates elsewhere -- could endanger Republican chances in November. Democratic nominee Travis Childers hoped a McDaniel win would give him an opening, but Cochran’s triumph virtually guarantees the seat will stay Republican, a result national party officials believed was essential to their hopes for wresting the Senate from Democratic control.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently hosted a fundraiser for Cochran in Washington. John McCain traveled to Mississippi on Monday to campaign for him. Gov. Phil Bryant appeared in ads touting Cochran’s service in the Navy, a push for support from veterans in a state that is home to four military bases. And popular former two-term Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour ran a super PAC backing the incumbent, focusing on expanding the electorate and playing up McDaniel’s past opposition to federal funding for education.

McDaniel’s bitter response served as a reminder, however, that one man’s party-building efforts are another’s election tampering. McDaniel and his supporters blamed their loss on Cochran’s efforts to court Democrats in the primary.

“It's disgraceful that self-described GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell, John McCain, the Chamber of Commerce and the NRSC would champion a campaign platform of pork barrel spending and insider deal-making, while recruiting Democrats to show up at the polls,” FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in a statement.

McDaniel had tried to capitalize on the public’s discontent with Washington and current members of Congress, and campaigned as a stronger fighter than Cochran against the Obama administration and Democratic policies. The race was also roiled by scandals and nasty ads that highlighted a stark stylistic and political divide within the GOP.

But as other primary results Tuesday night showed, public dissatisfaction with Washington wasn’t, by itself, sufficient sentiment to kick incumbents out of office.

In New York’s 13th District, 84-year-old Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel was embroiled in a spirited primary challenge from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat. Rangel has been plagued by ethics violations as well as demographic changes to the district he’s represented for nearly 44 years. Yet with almost all of the votes counted early this morning, Rangel appeared to have retained his seat again.

In Oklahoma, sophomore Republican Rep. James Lankford won his party’s U.S. Senate nomination, beating state House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who was backed by Tea Party groups and Texas’ conservative provocateur, Sen. Ted Cruz. Lankford is now heavily favored to win the seat in November to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Coburn. 

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

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