Monday, September 01, 2014

Race of the Day- Mississippi U.S. Senate

64 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Likely Republican

Over the past year, few stories have risen up more unexpectedly and have contained more twists and turns than the Senate race down in Mississippi. Books could be written about everything that has transpired up to this point, as it has resembled a political soap opera at times. There may not be all that much drama remaining though as the state will formally elect a Senator in November.

Republican Thad Cochran was first elected to the Senate in 1978, as one of the first politicians to usher in GOP dominance in the once exclusively Democrat South, and has faced very few obstacles as he has consistently been reelected ever since. A quiet, courtly conservative, Cochran has managed to remain on good terms with Democrats in his state, even African-Americans to some extent for a Republican, as he has worked for decades to bring home federal projects and dollars to his largely poor rural state.

With his aspirations of Senate leadership long a thing of the past, there was speculation as to whether Cochran would seek another term in 2014. Most took it for granted that if he did run, his reelection, as it has in the past, would be a formality. For months though, Cochran did not seem to be raising much money and looked like someone who would eventually announce his retirement. Establishment Republicans began to work behind the position themselves in what had become an overwhelmingly GOP state at the federal level and Democrats began to think they would at least have a shot if the seat opened up.

To the surprise of some, Cochran did announce for reelection and that seemed to close the book on any possibility the race could be competitive. However, a Tea Party backed candidate emerged in State Senator Chris McDaniel, who vowed to take the fight to the long-time Republican Appropriator. despite the fact that Mississippi Republicans tended to go along with the party establishment and that any sort of conservative insurgent movement seemed slower to build than in other states, where veteran GOP Senators shockingly lost re-nomination battles in recent years.

While just about every establishment Republican in Mississippi backed Cochran, McDaniel began to pick up steam among conservatives in the state and national figures around the country. Cochran did not do much campaigning and seemed to be politically past his prime in many ways. Gradually, it looked like McDaniel would be able to take advantage of the rise of the Tea Party and anti-Washington sentiment, among voters looking to make a change, and that he could very well deny Cochran another term.

In the meanwhile, Democrats were able to recruit former Congressman Travis Childers into the Senate race. An increasingly rare Blue Dog Democrat, who still claimed to be a conservative, Childers looks like a relic from the Southern Democrat past, down to his thin mustache. He had won a special Congressional election in 2008, but was easily wiped out in the GOP wave in 2010. With it clear any Democrat could no longer win a majority white district in Mississippi, Childers determined to take a chance on running for the Senate, on the possibility that Cochran would have either retired or been defeated in a primary. The former Congressman would easily win the nomination of his party in June, beating a handful of opponents, including an African-American who had previously run as a very conservative Republican, and was even less of a legitimate Democrat than Childers.

As the June Republican primary approached, McDaniel clearly had momentum over Cochran, but that seemed to suddenly change when conservative activists, who had tenuous ties to the McDaniel campaign were arrested after a disgusting scheme in which they broke in to the Mississippi nursing home that for years had housed Cochran's wife, who is seriously ill with dementia, and took video of her. While the video was quickly taken down, people were shocked. The McDaniel campaign denied any responsibility and his allies accused the Cochran campaign of trying to exploit the situation for political benefit. What was mostly said was that the motivation behind taking the video was to somehow draw a connection between Cochran's long-time wife suffering in a Mississippi nursing home, while the Senator spent almost all his time in Washington, where he lived in the home of a long-time female staffer, with whom he was often seen at social functions. Nobody really asked Cochran directly if he and the woman were romantically involved, but he expressed his devotion to his wife and not many people would fail to have sympathy for his situation. While all this was going on, a Tea Party figure who had been arrested in the filming scheme would go on to commit suicide. This was a soap opera all along, and we may never know the full truth of what went on and why.

National Republicans increasingly began to fear that a McDaniel primary win could potentially endanger what should have been a safe GOP seat, especially if news came to light that he had involvement in the nursing home filming scandal. Nonetheless, any backlash against McDaniel among Mississippi primary voters seemed to be short-lived as he headed into the June primary as the nominal favorite. Of course, Mississippi has a rule where a candidate must receive a majority of the vote, in order to avoid a runoff. Thus, it was considered conventional wisdom that even if Cochran finished first over McDaniel and a third basically unknown candidate, if the race went to a runoff, it would be a sign that he would then lose in a contest which would have an even lower turnout and be even more dominated by the Tea Party. The McDaniel people were happy at this point just to try to get to a runoff against a political institution, and they did just that, finishing in first place by over a thousand voters, adding even more credence to what seemed to be an impending nomination.

Heading into the runoff, the political obituary of Cochran was basically written, as it looked like he would inevitably fall to McDaniel. The incumbent would stay in the race though, albeit clearly past his prime as far as a campaigner (not that he had a real race in decades) was concerned. He told some story (where he might have been joking) in which the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee seemed to admit to youthful indiscretions with farm animals.

Behind the scenes though, the Cochran campaign began to work on a strategy that was highly unorthodox but which was basically their only chance of survival. Cochran would win a Republican runoff, in a very conservative southern state, by positioning himself to the left. Under state election law, anybody would be eligible to vote in the July runoff, provided that they did not vote in the previous Democrat primary. Since that was such a low interest affair, clearly there would be many votes that could be had, including among Democrats and African-Americans in particular, who did not vote in that primary. Many of those voters had probably never imagined they would be voting in a Republican nomination contest, but may very well have voted for Cochran before in the general elections where he had won in a landslide. It was taken for granted that a Republican would have a serious advantage in November anyway, so these voters decided that their choices came down to Cochran and McDaniel and voted strategically. To the benefit of the Cochran campaign, many non-Republicans started to mobilize against McDaniel, painting him as an extremist and a racist. If non-traditional Republicans in the state were not in love with conservative Republican Cochran, they at least realized he could be tolerated. There were statements from the incumbent's campaign that he was willing to use his position to help bring home government money to help people in the state.

It was not until the final days of the runoff campaign that it was seen that Cochran could actually still win. His campaign's unusual strategy paid off in the wake of Round 1 of the voting, as establishment Republicans and people who were not really Republicans at all, rallied to deny McDaniel the GOP nomination, and what would have very well been six years in Washington. A strong turnout among black voters in the Democrat parts of the state contributed to a two point win for the incumbent. McDaniel, who had spent months just trying to get in a runoff, even if it were via second place, had finished first in the primary, and then got totally politically screwed in the runoff. He was shocked and gave one of the most bitter speeches after the vote in recent political memory. He refused to concede and his campaign claimed massive voter fraud and he would go on to ask a court to declare him the winner. They said that too many people voted in the GOP runoff, who were ineligible because they had voted in the previous Democrat primary, but no significant evidence of that was really produced. What it seems they were really upset at was that black voters would be able to decide a Republican nomination.

I could digress on and go on and on about how distasteful I find the McDaniel campaign, but I will not. By his behavior though during the campaign, and on Election Night, and since, I happen to believe he probably was directly involved or at least condoned the nursing home thing, and had he been nominated, I think he would have been a ticking time bomb that could very well have risked this seat, and possibly the entire U.S. Senate, from going Democrat. As a Republican, I admire the fact that Cochran (whom I believe played by the rules in the runoff and his campaign should be applauded for such a brilliant tactic) was able to attract black voters who actually wanted him to represent them in the Senate. It may not have been a perfect political marriage between them, but it is still a step in bringing better relations among the GOP and black voters. I maintain that many of those who did vote for Cochran in the runoff, had probably voted for him in previous general elections anyway, and had every intention of voting for him this November, if they do vote.

Anyways, McDaniel's court challenge to the results has just recently been tossed aside,but he refuses to admit defeat or call for party unity. He clearly considers himself a martyr and will fight against what he considers to be an "injustice." He is a sore loser to the extreme and if he wants to leave the Republican Party because he lost a runoff to a multi-term incumbent, then good riddance.

So, Childers was clearly hoping to face McDaniel, where he might have had a chance, but now stands far less of a chance against Cochran, despite the incumbent's demonstrated political vulnerability. This should be  a Safe Republican race, but because there are so many hurt feelings on the GOP side over what happened, it is a bit more complicated. Some McDaniel supporters have vowed to vote for Childers in November out of spite and claim that he is actually more conservative than the incumbent. Obviously, they put Harry Reid and Senate control by the Democrats out of the equation. Childers seems to know there is not really much he can do the push the needle on this on his own, but he has reached out a bit to upset conservatives, trying to pick up their votes.

In November, Cochran will probably get less of the white vote than he ever has before, and many may skip the vote all-together. He also will not get a majority of the black vote, but I think he will get a lot more of it than many expect (although overall turnoff in Mississippi may be quite low.) African-American voters in the state seem to be quite pleased to have been able to exert their political influence into determining who won the GOP nomination, and are happy the Cochran campaign reached out to them. They are probably even more interested to see the anger directed at them by some in the Tea Party movement over this result, and may vote for Cochran, in order to stoke that further. There is also probably very little enthusiasm among black voters in the state for Travis Childers, beyond party loyalty.

So many twists and turns in this race, and possible hard to predict turnout situations in November lead me to classify this race as "Likely Republican." Polls have shown though that Cochran should have enough support to win, without too much drama, even if a bunch of angry Republicans cast a write-in vote for McDaniel or do something else.

All things considered, Cochran probably should have retired as he seemed to have been leaning towards, but my party should consider itself very fortunate that McDaniel will not be the standard bearer in this race and is not going to the U.S. Senate. He also will not be able to be used by national Democrats to hurt Republicans in other states this year.  

Cochran campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 7 D (4 Safe, 2 Leans, 1 Tossup), 11 R (3 Safe, 2 Likely, 4 Leans, 2 Tossup)
Overall predicted thus far: 41 D, 41 R (net Republican gain of 4)


At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope Thad loses big. And fuck the establishment GOP and their courrpt cronies for what they did to McDaniel.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Jay said...

Well, Deadender, I'm glad McDaniel can't cost the GOP a Senate seat in a crucial year. Fuck McDaniel for having his hired goons photograph an invalid woman in a nursing home. He and his Tea Party cronies got exactly what they deserved.

At 7:45 AM, Anonymous Conservative Democrat said...

2014 will be Cochran's LAST political campaign.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Steve Boudreaux said...

Cochran is poised to win his 7th consecutive statewide election in the Magnolia State.


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