Insurgent conservative Chris McDaniel, a state senator, led Cochran by just under 1,400 votes with most precincts reporting after last Tuesday’s primary, finishing a half a point shy of the 50 percent plus one threshold he needed to secure the nomination outright.
Cochran now faces the enthusiasm and voter turnout gaps that often plague incumbents forced into primary runoffs — even those who win the initial contest by a healthy margin.
To counter these headwinds, the Cochran campaign is adjusting its message to draw a sharper contrast with McDaniel — and, for the first time in the several months of this primary campaign, putting the 76-year-old, sixth-term senator on an aggressively public campaign schedule. He's also calling in reinforcement from former Sen. Trent Lott.
The campaign will drop a Tea Party-lite message designed to pick off McDaniel voters. Instead, to widen the pool of prospective voters overall, Cochran will run more explicitly on his record as a moderate conservative who will continue to deliver the federal funds and projects credited for untold thousands of Mississippi jobs.
To mobilize voters, the campaign also believes Cochran has to show some vigor. That means more media interviews and campaign appearances.
“It’s all about turnout now. Chris has the enthusiasm; Thad is going to have to generate his,” said a Republican insider based in Mississippi. “That’s the problem.”
Cochran’s supporters blame his campaign’s antiquated, lackluster GOTV operation for his second place finish last Tuesday, although they also cite the avalanche of votes McDaniel delivered in Jones County, his home base. Political observers knew McDaniel would win big there and in the adjacent counties, but few predicted he would run up the score the way he did.
Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, a native Mississippian and Cochran senior advisor, said the senator would have been re-nominated last Tuesday if it weren't for the results in Jones County. That’s little consolation to Cochran’s outside backers, who especially in light of the lower turnout expected in the runoff don’t trust the campaign to run a competent field program.
To compensate, the principle Mississippi-based outside group supporting Cochran, Mississippi Conservatives PAC, is shifting the primary focus of its work from advertising to get-out-the-vote activities. The group, a super PAC, is run by Henry Barbour and other Republican insiders embedded in the Magnolia State GOP establishment and experienced at running campaigns in all corners of the state. Mississippi Conservatives plans to spend the balance of the runoff executing its own GOTV operation.
The group’s strategy includes motivating the wealth of Cochran voters believed to exist but that failed to vote on June 3 because they didn’t believe Cochran could lose — he hasn't had a competitive race in decades — as well as independents and Democrats who did not vote in the primary but are partial to the incumbent. Mississippi voters do not register by party, and state law permits anyone to vote in the runoff, as long as they did not vote in the Democratic primary last Tuesday.
“We left the organization to the campaign last time. We’re not going to do that in the runoff,” said Barbour, the nephew of Republican former two-term Gov. Haley Barbour. “We will emphasize that Senator Cochran has been a great senator for all citizens, white and black.”
Cochran supporters had expressed confidence that if the turnout on June 3 hit 250,000, the senator should be positioned to eke out a victory, with chances rising the higher the turnout climbed. But more than 300,000 voted and Cochran still lost, under performing in some key counties that were considered his strongholds. Those areas included the gulf coast counties rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina with federal funds that Cochran worked hard to secure.
A must-win for Cochran in the runoff is Jackson County, situated in the southeast corner of the state against the coast. McDaniel won the region 49.3 percent to 47.7 percent, despite Cochran’s record of delivering federal funds that have helped keep humming a local shipyard and the jobs associated with it. McDaniel has been noncommittal on whether he would support future appropriations for disaster relief and local projects.
Cochran is also calling in help from Lott, his one-time rival.
Republican sources say the GOP former senator is anxious to help Cochran, who ran against him for Senate Majority Leader in the 1990s. Longtime Mississippi Republicans say Lott is considered a political “favorite son” of Jackson County, where he lived all of his adult life until 2005, when his house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Now a resident of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital, Lott still carries considerable weight in Jackson County and throughout the state, and Republicans believe he could be particularly helpful to Cochran in the coastal region. Lott recorded a radio advertisement in support of Cochran before the primary, and Stevens said he has agreed to film a television spot for the senator in the runoff. Lott could not be reached for comment late last week.
Conservatives supporting McDaniel are brimming with confidence that the challenger will prevail on June 24. Although there is no historical precedent for a race like this in Mississippi that involves an incumbent Republican senator, states with runoff elections are typically unkind to incumbents who don’t win outright on the first ballot. Additionally, from the outset of the campaign, McDaniel’s voters have been more energized and certain to turn out.
Fewer voters in the runoff will only emphasize that advantage. It also appears as though a scandal involving a McDaniel supporter who took illegal photographs of Cochran's wife, who suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home, and posted them online as a part of a political attack video only served to temporarily stall the challenger's late surge, not reverse it. It's unclear if lingering news about the incident will have any impact on runoff voters.
“All the momentum is with McDaniel,” said a conservative strategist who has been active for the challenger. “There is going to be a view among voters that he’s gong to win the runoff, and that’s going to be a tough hill to climb because people like to be with the winner.”