Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) orchestrated a stunning comeback over primary challenger Chris McDaniel on Tuesday night thanks to an unusual combination of African-American support and GOP establishment might.
Cochran pulled out a narrow victory, taking 51 percent of the vote to McDaniel’s 49 percent when The Associated Press called the neck-and-neck race, with 98 percent of precincts reporting.
McDaniel’s loss is a major repudiation of the Tea Party at a pivotal moment for the movement. After a disappointing first few months to the election cycle for conservatives, the Mississippi runoff and Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) surprise primary loss breathed new life into activist groups and candidates, spurring many to talk about expanding their map of competitive races.
But Cochran’s success will likely take the wind out of the Tea Party’s sails and send it back to the drawing board in search of a new kind of message and a new kind of candidate.
That’s because conditions seemed ripe for a Tea Party takeover in Mississippi all the way up to the close of the polls Tuesday night.
Every national conservative group that weighed in on the race endorsed McDaniel, and many poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, ultimately spending more than $7 million on the candidate and $3 million more than outside groups spent on Cochran.
Cochran ran explicitly on the services and federal money his seniority brought to the state, an anathema to fiscal conservatives. He also embraced his Washington ties, benefitting from a fundraiser thrown by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and receiving Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign help to reach out to military members on the eve of the election.
Addressing supporters at his victory party Tuesday night, Cochran was brief, speaking only for a few minutes.
"This is your victory. It’s been a real pleasure working so closely with so many of you," said the genial senator.
Some of his own supporters were likely surprised by his victory. Nearly every survey of the race showed Cochran trailing the challenger. At least one establishment group chose to sit the runoff out, an indication of just how bleak his prospects were three weeks ago. But the incumbent received support from the Chamber of Commerce, which ran a last-minute ad with an endorsement from Mississippi native and former NFL star Brett Favre.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee also pitched in heavily, raising $1 million for the senator during the three-week runoff stretch and pitching in $500,000 of their own money to help with get out the vote efforts and field program. The NRSC sent 45 staff and volunteers to Mississippi to knock on 65,00 doors, nearly a third of whom didn't vote on the first primary date; 18,000 calls were also made to help Cochran from the NRSC's Capitol Hill basement.
Cochran might have also benefitted from an unusual attempt to expand the electorate by making a pitch to African-American Democrats who didn’t vote in the initial primary. But conservatives slammed the tactic, and observers warned it could backfire. Skeptics argued Cochran would be seen as betraying his party, but it now seems the effort helped counteract any drop-off in turnout for the runoff vote.
That tactic was one of a handful of strange developments in the race that kept the national and local media glued to the candidates’ every move.
The race drew national attention for its extremes: The primary fight was one of the nation’s most expensive thus far this cycle, drawing at least $11.4 million in outside spending; it was also one of the nastiest, with both sides accusing the other of lying and questioning their opponent’s character and integrity.
And it will likely live on as the 2014 cycle’s strangest, with colorful comments from both candidates playing prominently in campaign ads, multiple scandals dogging both, a rare play by Cochran for African-American Democratic votes and a panoply of GOP stars hitting the trail for each man.
Cochran’s team attacked McDaniel for racially charged comments he made as a conservative talk radio host, which will continue to provide fodder for Democratic attacks. Perhaps stranger still, a pro-McDaniel group seized on offhand comments Cochran made that he liked to do “all kinds of indecent things with animals.”
McDaniel stumbled over a scandal concerning the arrest of four men, some clear supporters of his bid, for allegedly sneaking into a nursing home to take photos of Cochran’s wife for use in an apparent political attack on the senator.
The challenger grappled with questions concerning that scandal for weeks, and then, as the narrative started to turn in his favor when he forced a runoff, he was again kneecapped by a trio of supporters who ended up locked in a county courthouse with primary ballots on the night of the June 4 election.
Those supporters were eventually absolved of any wrongdoing after a police investigation, but the seeming inability of McDaniel’s supporters and staff to keep themselves out of trouble cast a shadow over his campaign.
But Cochran was not been without his own controversies. His team fired a staffer this week for allegedly stealing or defiling pro-McDaniel campaign signs, faced scrutiny over why it held onto the information about the photos of Cochran’s wife for three weeks, and the candidate himself faced persistent questions over his age, after the 76-year-old appeared confused and disoriented in multiple interviews.
Still, it appears McDaniel’s wayward and hapless campaign, and his unpredictable supporters, got the better of him, stymieing the Tea Party’s last great hope for a high-profile win this cycle.
Jessica Taylor contributed.
— This post was updated at 2:18 a.m.