Just a few years ago, this probably wouldn’t have been worth mentioning: Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a six-term incumbent with a strong conservative record who had ceaselessly brought home the bacon for his state, defeated a Republican primary challenge from a rookie state legislator and former radio host.
But three weeks ago, Cochran failed to reach 50 percent in the primary against tea-party favorite Chris McDaniel, who bested him by 1,400 votes, in part by railing against Cochran’s record of securing federal dollars for the state.
In the runoff Tuesday, all bets were on the challenger’s side, especially after the establishment lost a big one earlier this month in Virginia with the primary ouster of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to a little-known college professor with no money.
But Cochran fought back with a flood of money, a frightened Republican machine and U.S. Chamber of Commerce cranking into action, an ad featuring former National Football League star Brett Favre and a get-out-the-vote effort led by former Gov. Haley Barbour. Complacent Republicans had awoken to what could happen. In the poorest state in the country, the loss of money for schools, roads, sewage plants and other public works concentrates the mind.
Because it was an open primary, Cochran also made an effort to mobilize voters in the Delta and in predominantly black counties. Turnout exceeded 374,000 for the runoff, up from about 319,000 in the first round. In Hinds County, which includes the state capital of Jackson and where the population is more than two-thirds black, turnout rose 43 percent as Cochran’s vote share grew to 72 percent from 66 percent. He had good relationships in the black community; he never joined the bitter resistance to school integration. He hadn’t had a serious challenge from a Democrat or Republican since 1984.
McDaniel brought in some poll watchers, scary in a state where voting rights have long been an issue, but there were no ugly incidents reported as polls closed. Nonetheless, he lost 51 percent to 49 percent, though he still hasn’t conceded the race.
McDaniel campaigned on not bringing money to the state, going so far as to say he would have rejected federal funds after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. His staff softened that statement, but he never relented on a promise to wean the state off Washington money.
Until recently, Cochran would have been a shoo-in. He had a solid conservative voting record, scoring 90 percent or better, he kept his head down, a work horse, not a show horse. Reaching occasionally across the aisle when compromise is akin to surrender to the enemy made him a target. It wasn’t enough that Cochran opposed the Affordable Care Act. His opponent wanted him to hate President Obama, too.
And he’d gone soft, not ready to fight a scrappy newcomer until his back was against the wall. McDaniel provided some help in getting him fired up. His supporters broke into the nursing home where Cochran’s wife has lived with dementia for 13 years to give heft to the rumor that Cochran was having an affair. McDaniel, a Confederacy sympathizer, made intemperate remarks that Cochran strung together in an ad toward the end of the contest.
The race went national, with supporters such as Sen. John McCain turning up to campaign for Cochran, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin jetting in to support McDaniel. The money was national, too. Almost $12 million was spent by outside groups.
Blind rage against Washington lost this time, but only after a huge effort. The establishment has caught on to the importance of defeating tea-party candidates, who might blow a general election.
The press corps that descended on Mississippi will now go home. Cochran’s Democratic opponent in November, Travis Childers, might have had a slight chance against McDaniel, he has almost none against the Republican incumbent. To those keeping track, the pendulum has swung back after Cantor’s loss. The winner is the establishment, big time.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.
© 2014, Bloomberg News