Six term Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran (R) is all but assured to lose a run-off in three weeks after he failed to garner 50% in the party’s primary election against state senator Chris McDaniel. McDaniel garnered 49.5% (155,040) of the vote to Cochran’s 49% (153,634). The race has been marked by divisive and personal attacks against both candidates, National Republicans have strongly backed Cochran. Outside groups such as the Club for Growth and Tea Party Express are backing McDaniel.
Cochran appealed to primary voters by arguing his seniority and tenure in Congress is an asset to the state. Cochran was the first Republican to win statewide office in Mississippi since Reconstruction in 1978 and his legislative resume is based on bringing billions in pet projects to the state. McDaniel, a rising star in the conservative wing of the party, argued that Cochran’s years of bringing pork to the state have only added to the country’s debt and show the Senator is not a conservative.
At first glance the fact Cochran kept McDaniel under 50% might be something the Senator’s supporters can cheer. But the Senator lost the first round of balloting, albeit narrowly, and according to the Fix run-offs since 2000 have not been kind to incumbents. Specifically, the Fix focuses on six run-offs from 2002 to today and looks at the incumbent vote percent gain compared to the challengers. In five of the six cases the challengers gained more votes and by a massive margin. Only Democrat William Jefferson gained more votes than his challenger in the run-off. Jefferson is better known for storing money in his freezer and handing a safe, urban New Orleans seat to Republicans for two years.
Cochran should be most alarmed by what happened to Rep. Ralph Hall in TX in his late may run-off primary. Hall initially won his primary but failed to get 50%. Forced into a run-off which saw low turnout, Hall garnered a mere 2% addition to his vote relative to the initial primary compared to his challenger who ultimately won the run-off.
Low turnout would likely devastate Cochran’s chances. GOP primaries since 2010 have shown that the energy and excitement is usually on the side of supporters of the anti-establishment candidate. Thus, McDaniel supporters are more likely to come out and vote again on June 24th compared to Cochran supporters.
Additionally, Cochran has done very little to appeal to the party’s most conservative elements. Many Republican incumbents this cycle have successfully fended off challenges by appealing to strongly fiscally conservative voters. But Cochran has not making his chances on June 24th basically come down to turnout.
National Republicans are torn between deciding whether or not to stick with their support of Cochran or become neutral for the remainder of the race. Despite Democrat Travis Childer’s is unlikely to win the race if he faces McDaniel, Republicans worry about tearing down McDaniel to if he becomes the party’s nominee. Republicans particularly worry about weakening McDaniel among the state’s agricultural base who swing elections. American Crossroads, perhaps worried about such an effect, recently announced they would not spend on the run-off, denying Cochran a sorely needed pool of funds and resources.
For Cochran, worries about McDaniel’s chances should he make the general are irrelevant. Cochran’s allies, the state establishment, plan to continue to hammer McDaniel until the 24th. Only after the dust settles on the 25th will that change. But past elections show just how little the state establishment can now do. Thad Cochran needed to win on Tuesday and failed to do so. Expect turnout on the 24th to be light and primarily McDaniel supporters, effectively ending the six term Senator’s legislative career.