Inside Look

How Thad Cochran Pulled Off a Win Over Chris McDaniel (Simple, Really)

No trick strategies were necessary to push the incumbent over the Tea Party challenger in Mississippi. Instead, hard legwork and reaching out to past voters got it done.

Lee Celano/Reuters

For a while on Election Night, I thought the race might come down to my old paper route. That was June 3, on what turned out to be the first primary in the Mississippi U.S. Senate race. My candidate, Sen. Thad Cochran, had been ahead by a point or two most of the night, until Jones County fell on us like a big hammer.

Jones County, Mississippi, was the home county of our opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel. It’s a fascinating and storied corner of the world, famous for forming “The Free State of Jones” during the Civil War, when it tried not to fight for either side. On June 3, Jones came in with 85 percent support for McDaniel, a net gain of just over 9,000 votes. In a race of about 320,000 votes, 9,000 was enough to throw us from ahead to behind and, critically, under 50 percent, with a third-party candidate receiving 1.5 percent. Under Mississippi law, if no candidate receives 50 percent, a runoff is mandated, held three weeks later.

So I was going through the ritual of tight election nights, trying to figure out what was still unreported and if it were enough to make a difference. Hinds County, my home county, and more specifically my old neighborhood, Belhaven, were coming in heavily for Cochran. With a bit of luck and duct tape, I thought we might put together enough votes to avoid a runoff.

But it was not a night for luck, and as the last numbers trickled in, we were down about 1,500 votes and headed to a runoff, one most observers argued we were fated to lose.

The case for an incumbent senator trailing a challenger and then losing a runoff is not far-fetched: It seems to happen 100 percent of the time. But while we were tired and bouncing around between disappointed we hadn’t won and relieved we hadn’t lost, there seemed a clear and obvious path to victory. Call it the “runners on base” strategy.

When Cochran last ran in 2008, 766,111 Mississippians voted for him, 40,000 more than for Sen. John McCain, who beat then-Sen. Barack Obama by 13 percent in the state. A record number of primary voters had turned out on June 3, but that still meant about 150,000 votes for Cochran. More than 600,000 Mississippians who had voted for him in 2008 hadn’t on June 3.

They were the runners we had left on base. All we had to do to win was get more of them home.

So while the most of the world was talking about how impossible the task seemed, it was really pretty simple: Get voters who had voted for Cochran once to do it again. The only voters who couldn’t vote for Cochran were those who had voted in the Democratic primary on June 3. That only reduced the possible universe of voters by 90,000 votes. Mississippi has no party registration and requires no party declaration to vote in any primary. McDaniel had voted in the 2003 Democratic primary for governor, when the last incumbent Democratic governor was running. The state system was designed to allow voters to choose by candidate, not party. And voters, McDaniel included, often did.

We started with the most obvious task: ensuring that everyone who voted for Cochran on June 3 showed up again in three weeks. My partner, Austin Barbour, along with Josh Gregory from Jackson-based Frontier Strategies, put together a crash program to gather all the data from every county clerk of who had voted. It was time-consuming and expensive, but essential. Within 10 days, we had 95 percent of the data.

To those names we added high-propensity Republican primary voters: those who had voted in other primaries but didn’t vote on June 3. Together we worked those two universes over and over with phone calls, mail, and door knocks. Our goal was to identify at least 100,000 known Cochran voters by the weekend before the June 24 election. We made it to 120,000.

The day after the June 3 election, Cochran returned to campaigning, going to Rankin County, a key area east of Jackson, along with the very popular local Rep. Gregg Harper. With no events prepared, we hit Chick-fil-A, working the crowd.

That was the first time I began to see what became something of a theme in the race: a grudging respect for the 76-year-old senator, who took a good shot from a younger challenger but was still on his feet fighting. It was like Rocky III or IV. Cochran had come down with some nasty throat bug and his voice was low and scratchy, but that only made it better. He was proving he would fight.

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By contrast, McDaniel didn’t appear in public the rest of the week. He finally surfaced for one event on Saturday. I’m convinced that had he gotten on his bus and worked the state like Cochran did on the days after June 3, the results might have been different. But like a lot of things in life, how hard you work matters, and in a short runoff campaign, every day is like a week. Cochran just flat outworked his opponent all through the runoff.

Much has been made about the senator’s success in getting African Americans to vote for him. But lost in this discussion is the fact that the majority of these voters had surely voted for Cochran in prior elections. Take a look at Precincts 22 and 24, two predominately African-American precincts in Hinds County, the center of the Jackson metro area.

In the 2008 general election, Cochran received 80 votes in Precinct 22 (McCain got 9; Obama, 1,170.) On June 24, Cochran received 83.

In Precinct 24, Cochran received 63 votes in 2008. On June 24, he received 26.

In those two precincts, Cochran received a net decrease of 54 votes from 2008. So African-American voters had voted before for Cochran and were doing so again, albeit in reduced numbers from a larger turnout general election.

These numbers still represented a huge increase from the June 3 primary, where only 12 voters voted for Cochran in those two precincts and three for McDaniel. Were those vote increases a result of the Cochran campaign’s efforts? I hope the campaign helped. If a candidate wins precincts in the first round by a 4-to-1 margin, it would be a poor campaign indeed that didn’t try to increase turnout in those precincts, particularly when there was a universe of voters who had previously voted for the candidate.

Turnout was the story across Mississippi. One of the astounding facts of this astounding race was an overall increase of more than 60,000 votes between the first and second primary, something that rarely, if ever, occurs. For the entire runoff campaign, the message was delivered by the media and driven especially hard by the McDaniel campaign that the runoff would pick the state’s next senator. The McDaniel campaign pushed this message to quiet any chatter that he might face a serious challenge in the general election. The media pushed it because a Republican winning Mississippi in November seemed near inevitable.

So guess what? Mississippians responded accordingly and voted in record numbers across the state. Should it come as any shock that on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, African Americans also wanted to participate in the electoral process?

The Cochran campaign and allies have been accused by some of trying to get African-American votes. That such a charge would be leveled in 2014 reflects a terribly depressing mind-set. Would anyone ever attack a campaign for trying to get female votes? Yes, once. Now?

In 1978 Cochran defeated the Jim Eastland Democratic machine to become the first Republican elected to the Senate from Mississippi since Reconstruction. Cochran ran then as a cool voice of calm appealing to all Mississippians. As he said repeatedly in the 2014 election, he considers it a “duty and honor to represent all Mississippians.” In past elections, he routinely received 10 percent to 20 percent of the African-American vote. If all Republicans did as well, we’d have more victory celebrations and a stronger party.

On Tuesday, June 24, a record number of Mississippians voted in a Republican primary. In a state where not a few have died fighting for the right to vote, that’s to be celebrated, with both sides congratulated for boosting turnout. As Cochran said on the stump and in ads, he is a pro-life, NRA-endorsed conservative who opposes Obamacare. He is also a good and kind man who serves Mississippi well.

I walked neighborhoods for him when he first ran for Congress, and he made me proud. He did it once more on June 24. And on November 4, I think he’ll do it again.