Runoff Required in Mississippi’s Dirtiest Primary
The Mississippi Senate primary Tuesday night ended in a virtual tie. The Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel finished ever so slightly ahead of six-term Senator Thad Cochran on election night, but he failed to secure the 50% required for victory under Mississippi election law.
After a back and forth seesaw race, both candidates were locked on 49% with 99% of the votes counted. The presence of obscure spoiler Thomas Carey who grabbed 1.6% of the vote in this razor-tight primary was just enough to force Magnolia State Republicans to head to the polls all over again on June 24.
The Senate race was one of the dirtiest, grimiest, strangest campaigns in recent political history. The low point came when a blogger named Clayton Kelly broke into the nursing home of Cochran’s wife, Rose, who suffers from severe dementia and is bedridden, in an attempt to somehow aid McDaniel.
While the McDaniel campaign has disclaimed any connection to the break-in, three other men have since been arrested for helping Kelly, including Mark Mayfield, a McDaniel volunteer and prominent Tea Party activist, and John Mary, who co-hosted a radio show with McDaniel. The logic apparently was to somehow aid McDaniel by helping push a story that 76-year-old Cochran was having an affair with a longtime aide from whom he rented an apartment in Washington. While rumors of septuagenarian senators having affairs with staff members are not unusual, this is believed to be the first time that the staff member who was the subject of gossip was older than the senator involved.
Regardless of the political aims of Kelly’s strategy, it boomeranged on McDaniel. His campaign was thrown on the defensive as the race escalated from what was already a ferociously aggressive campaign into one that was increasingly bizarre. By the end, McDaniel’s campaign was going out of its way to keep reporters from events while Cochran, fighting his first serious campaign since the Carter administration, struggled on the stump. SuperPACs from both sides spent millions on the race as Mississippi’s airwaves were jam-packed with political ads.
The result of this fiercely contested race was a higher turnout than anticipated. It approached 300,000, far higher than the 250,000 figure bandied by the Cochran campaign as the minimum that they needed to have a chance. While the map looked much as pundits predicted—-with Cochran winning in the Mississippi Delta and the state capital, Jackson, while McDaniel racked up huge margins in his native turf in southeast Mississippi’s Pinebelt (including a huge surge in turnout in his native Jones County, where he won 85% of the vote)—-there were surprises. Cochran’s vote collapsed in the Memphis suburbs of DeSoto County, while he managed to do better than expected in northeast Mississippi. The one ace in the hole for the incumbent senator was the intervention of Democrats who crossed over to vote for him in the state’s open primary. Turnout in Lafayette County, home of the University of Mississippi and a liberal bastion by the Magnolia State’s standards, was 50% higher than in the state’s 2011 gubernatorial primary.
On election night, Cochran didn’t address the crowd although his campaign gamely spun the result as an act of remarkable survival against the out-of-state groups who had spent $5 million to take him down. In contrast, McDaniel addressed a jubilant crowd at a campaign rally in Hattiesburg, proclaiming “This is a historic moment in this state’s history” and predicting that “whether it’s tomorrow or whether it is three weeks from tonight we will stand victorious in this race.”
The Tea Party state senator then darkly warned, “In the long history of the world, only a handful of generations have ever had the chance and granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum peril. Your responsibilities are intense. We must not stop fighting. This government is worth your defense. This Constitution worth your restoration.” After wrapping his remarks and bringing his family on to the stage, McDaniel returned to the microphone to remind the crowd, “We owe everything that happened tonight to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he is in control.”
With no knowledge of the divine will, however, it is always difficult to predict the outcome of a runoff. U.S. senators from Mississippi have traditionally enjoyed greater job security than hereditary monarchs and Cochran is only the third person to be elected for a full term in his Senate seat since the passage of the 17th Amendment. Both campaigns are worn out from their all-out battle. Their war chests are empty, their volunteers and staff are exhausted. With a runoff likely to have lower turnout than the primary (with anyone who voted in the Democratic primary prohibited from participating), the electorate is likely to be more conservative than Tuesday’s. But the runoff won’t be the last competitive election for the Senate seat this year.
While Mississippi looms in the popular imagination as a Republican stronghold, the state’s congressional delegation was majority Democratic as recently as 2010 and the GOP only took full control of the state legislature in 2011. The state is also one where Obama won 44% of the vote in 2012 buoyed by high African-American turnout.
The Democratic nominee who will face the eventual runoff winner is former Rep. Travis Childers. He won a conservative district in a 2007 special election and managed to hold on in 2008 before going down in the GOP wave of 2010. If McDaniel wins the nomination, Childers would be well positioned to harness the votes of disaffected establishment Republicans and traditional conservative Democrats. A Democrat running statewide only needs about 25%-30% of the white vote in the Magnolia State and Childers, a credible pro-life, pro-guns candidate, epitomizes the type of Democrat who wins at a local level in the state. He also may find unexpected support from inside the Beltway. After all, a Democratic pickup in Mississippi would mark the third consecutive cycle that a Tea Party primary caused the GOP to squander an otherwise safe Senate seat and it would only strengthen the establishment case in the ongoing internecine conflict within the Republican Party. But even the most optimistic advocate for Childers still only sees him having a 50/50 chance against McDaniel. In contrast, if Cochran wins the runoff, it’s debatable whether Childers will even take the time to march in parades this summer. In the meantime, before the runoff, it’s likely that the Democratic candidate, who has barely raised money and has a barebones website, will start gearing up his campaign apparatus.
Despite the looming specter of Childers, McDaniel still has a significant edge in the runoff. Incumbents forced into runoffs rarely fare well in any situation, let alone after serving six terms with minimal intraparty opposition. But, in a campaign defined by a blogger breaking into a nursing home, stranger things have happened.