How Thad Cochran snagged an unlikely runoff win

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Sen. Thad Cochran pulled off a rare move in politics: An upset of an upset.

After the 76-year-old Mississippi Republican came in second in the state's June 3 primary to state Sen. Chris McDaniel, he rallied to pull off a surprising win in the runoff two weeks later.

So how did he do it?

Republican insiders and others who followed the race well told the Washington Examiner that Cochran's campaign and its outside supporters courted non-traditional primary voters, improved their ground game and sharpened their messaging to win the runoff.

“When we realized there was going to be a runoff, we thought McDaniel was capped with his support and that Sen. Cochran had a lot more upside he could tap into,” said Henry Barbour, who ran a pro-Cochran super PAC and served as the driving force behind the Mississippi GOP Establishment's push.

The Cochran campaign and its supporters made key adjustments for the two-week runoff campaign, changes that were at least partly enabled by Mississippi election law. The state doesn’t register voters by party and all primaries are open, with runoffs open to all registered voters, whether they voted in the initial primary or not, as long as they did not vote in another party’s primary.

Both Cochran and McDaniel increased their vote totals from the June 3 primary, but Cochran finished on top by 2 percentage points, 51 percent to 49 percent, or almost 7,000 votes, in round two.

Here are the factors credited by the pro-Cochran forces for the win:

• Courting non-traditional voters. The Cochran campaign and the outside groups that supported the senator make no bones about it: They targeted voters who typically vote Democrat, including teachers, union members and African-Americans.

Cochran supporters feared that McDaniel could be vulnerable in the general election to former Rep. Travis Childers, the Democratic nominee. This helped boost votes for Cochran among voters who consider themselves Republicans and support the senator but had skipped the primary because they assumed the incumbent would win easily, as he has for decades.

But, ironically, Cochran profited from the expectation that McDaniel was a shoo-in to win in November given Mississippi's conservative tilt, as it convinced probably thousands of voters who typically vote Democrat to cross over and back Cochran in the runoff. McDaniel's vow to reign in government spending and stop federal money that Cochran has directed to Mississippi over the years helped close the deal.

Still, Cochran’s backers contend, he’s had a strong relationship with African-Americans for years, at least for a Republican, so it wasn’t the stretch it might seem to get them to turn out for him.

“That’s no different than Libertarians supporting McDaniel,” said one Republican Cochran supporter based in Jackson, the state capital.

• Improving the ground game. The Barbour political network, led by Henry Barbour and his uncle, former Gov. Haley Barbour, functioned as a sort of shadow political party. They helped coordinate the get-out-the-vote efforts of GOP activists and other pro-Cochran forces in key counties. Barbour and these activists shared the view that the Cochran campaign wasn’t good at GOTV, and they took it upon themselves to do the work the way they thought it needed to be done.

Some of the outside groups supporting Cochran, including Henry Barbour’s super PAC, shifted their focus from advertising to voter turnout after the election. Barbour’s group printed 500,000 cards for volunteers to use when talking to prospective voters as they knocked on doors.

The Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that advocates for moderate Republicans, invested $150,000 on voter turnout. The group’s efforts resulted in 25,000 door-knocks that supporters say were effective at supplementing the efforts of the Cochran campaign and other outside supporters.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also contributed to Cochran's turnaround. A Washington fundraiser held at the NRSC just after the primary brought in nearly $1 million for his campaign.

• Changing the message. Through much of the initial primary campaign, Cochran was out of site, and when he was visible his message was muddled. McDaniel campaigned up and down the state almost every day, and spent a lot of time in battlegrounds like DeSoto County. His message about adding another conservative voice to the Senate to combat big government run amok gained traction -- even among voters who professed to be satisfied with “Thad.”

The day after the primary, Cochran was on the trail for a handful of campaign events. He did the same the next day and the day after that. McDaniel’s first move after the primary was to disappear from the campaign trail for the first few days, a move that puzzled Cochran’s supporters, even as it delighted them.

“Every day in a runoff is like a week,” said GOP strategist Stuart Stevens, who advised Cochran. “You lose a day; you lose a week. He disappeared for four days. … It’s the oddest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Instead of trying to compete with McDaniel's message about restoring conservatism to Washington, Cochran returned to his roots, promising to continue his big-spending ways and ensure that federal funds kept flowing to Mississippi -- for infrastructure, for education, for military installations and everything else residents have benefited from over the years.

That, combined with very localized, county-by-county advertising by Barbour’s super PAC and other outside groups that was designed to appeal to soft Republicans, soft Democrats, swing voters and African-Americans, helped Cochran increase his margin and counter the steep advantage McDaniel had in his home turf of Jones County and the surrounding areas.

“I am very surprised that more people turned out for a runoff than a primary,” Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., said. “I would consider Sen. Cochran’s turnaround to be quite the upset based upon the polling that was going into that last weekend.”

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David M. Drucker

Senior Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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