Republicans were likely to hold the U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi regardless of whether conservative upstart Chris McDaniel or six-term incumbent Thad Cochran won Tuesday’s run-off primary. And yet Cochran’s narrow victory came as a relief to national Republicans, who were anxious about what a McDaniel bid could mean for their chances of winning back the Senate majority.
The electoral map that decides control of the Senate is a constantly evolving puzzle for both major parties, with national organizations making ever-changing calculations on which states should receive the most resources to guarantee the best overall outcome for their sides. Any money that has to be spent in one state in many ways deprives another on the map from being a beneficiary.
That was one of the top concerns for Republicans heading into Tuesday's vote — and an area of hope for Democrats. A McDaniel win would have emboldened Democrats to dedicate time and energy to their candidate in the state, former Rep. Travis Childers, and would have forced Republicans to match that time and energy in a state that has been a solid and unblinking red for decades.
The number of establishment GOP operatives who found themselves either working on or in Mississippi in the three weeks since McDaniel forced the runoff vote underscored the seriousness with which the party approached the prospect of having to devote additional time there between now and November. Some might be quick to judge the bitter race between two flawed candidates as an ideological battle between tea party and establishment forces. But this race, and particularly the three-week runoff campaign, had as much to do with Washington’s most valuable currency — control — as with policy or ideological differences.
Tuesday was about many things, but one of them was who would control the candidate in Mississippi. McDaniel likely would not have cooperated with national GOP groups, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, based on his disregard for the national party operation to date and previous tracks taken by candidates like him.
Also at stake was control of the national Republican message in races outside of Mississippi. One of the top fears cited by those close to the NRSC after the June 3 primary was that McDaniel could have a so-called “Akin effect” on the map, a reference to Rep. Todd Akin’s failed 2012 bid to become a Republican senator from Missouri. His outlandish statements about rape forced other candidates to discuss the issue — and poorly. Republicans almost certainly lost Indiana because of an anti-woman narrative that started in the Show Me State, and Akin’s comments led to new, tough questioning of other GOP candidates across the map.
And ultimately, Tuesday was about control over Mitch McConnell’s bid to be Senate majority leader. Republicans have believed for the past two election cycles that the map favors them, and yet, a large group of GOP political operatives, many based in D.C., have profited from working for primary campaigns that have taken out GOP incumbents and dampened the party’s ability to retake the Senate.
As Yahoo News reported earlier in June, many Republican consultants saw the Mississippi election as a proxy war between those trying to defend GOP incumbents and those trying to defeat them instead of going after Democrats. They described a win in Mississippi as effectively keeping the boot on the neck of the conservative cottage industry that has given the establishment political heartburn over the past four years.
Outside groups spent nearly $12 million over the course of the McDaniel-Cochran intraparty fight, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with $775,000 coming in for Cochran in the last week and $210,000 for McDaniel.
Approximately 6,000 votes separated McDaniel and Cochran, with nearly all precincts reporting by Wednesday morning. The NRSC had dispatched 15 to 20 operatives to the state, knowing that the runoff would hinge more on voter turnout than on an expensive advertising campaign. Among those staffers was a former top Mitt Romney campaign adviser, Stuart Stevens.
The Cochran camp defied both precedent and convention by actually increasing turnout for a runoff, just 21 days after a primary. More than 375,000 voters showed up at the polls Tuesday, up from approximately 313,000 voters on June 3. Cochran supporters took advantage of the open-primary setup in Mississippi to expand their map, recruiting both African-American Democrats and Republicans who were not active voters to support their side.
As former NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas predicted: “It’s all about who shows up to vote — I think it’s not so much about making your case or spending money trying to get new voters to turn out. It’s trying to make sure people who voted for you in the primary come out and vote for you in the runoff.”