National Republicans find themselves in a political jam over the looming Senate runoff in Mississippi, with some establishment operatives now wishing that tea party challenger Chris McDaniel had just won outright or that six-term incumbent Thad Cochran hadn’t run at all.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is in the most uncomfortable spot, as the top institutional defender of incumbents. It is pledging its full support to Cochran while also having to grapple with the reality that McDaniel, who might well win the nomination, is a political figure it can’t control, and giving Democrats reason to dream about a seat in Mississippi for the first time since Dixiecrats fell out of vogue.
“It’s worse that it went into a runoff. It would have been better had McDaniel just gotten those last hundred votes. It’s like [watching] this slow death that’s unpleasant,” said one veteran GOP operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he might speak candidly about the race.
The operative also acknowledged the other key disadvantage Cochran faces in trying to levy enough support — particularly financially — over the next three weeks to overcome the vote deficit he had in the primary and win the runoff. Tea party conservative groups tend to spend a lot of money, indiscriminately and without larger strategy, to support candidates who clear their ideological purity tests. Establishment groups tend to think about an entire electoral map and their chances of winning each race on a sliding scale before opening up their wallets. Already in the Mississippi Republican U.S. Senate primary, outside groups have shelled out more than $8 million, with approximately $5.5 million of that favoring McDaniel.
“Outside groups will spend a ton. The tea party groups will spend a lot more money than the establishment groups, and the establishment groups will take a walk because why would they throw away all that money on a 1-in-30 chance?” the operative said of Cochran. “I just think it’s lights out for him.”
Of course, the NRSC is working overtime to analyze Tuesday night’s results, hoping to build a coherent turnout strategy to defy the growing conventional wisdom that Cochran is doomed. In the last weeks of the primary, the group dispatched 15 to 20 operatives to help with the Cochran campaign field and turnout operations. Among those staffers was Stu Stevens, a senior strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
At this point, with Cochran and McDaniel having largely exhausted their campaign funds and the NRSC mindful of its larger strategy to win back the Senate, it’s unlikely that the group’s involvement would extend beyond providing infrastructural support, according to a source familiar with its plans. The NRSC already spent six figures on the race through the primary.
But according to Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who helmed the NRSC last cycle and survived his own primary this year, the next three weeks in Mississippi, like any runoff, is a game of numbers and turning out the right voters. So a turnout strategy that results in successfully targeting the more than 300,000 Mississippi GOP primary voters, just fewer than half of whom voted for each candidate, could prove to be a more meaningful contribution from the NRSC than money alone. Another Republican familiar with Magnolia State politics suggested that the most important county for Cochran would be DeSoto, which includes part of the Delta and is near Memphis.
“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,” Cornyn said. “It’s a lot more personal and more direct in terms of the communication to motivate people to come out and vote, because it’s going to be a very low turnout.”
Of course, the race in Mississippi has already been deeply personal, in ugly ways that have turned off many voters, with McDaniel supporters getting arrested as part of a break-in at Cochran’s infirm wife’s nursing home.
But on the other side of the “personal” coin, Cochran’s greatest weakness, according to multiple aides, was that he was not engaged enough in the campaign process. He didn’t declare his bid until six months before the primary date and did not spend as much time in his home state aggressively campaigning as did other Republicans who faced challenges from the right, such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or Lindsey Graham, whose primary is this month.
According to another GOP source, Cochran and his representatives were the only campaigners embroiled in a Republican primary race in 2014 who did not approach Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has been in office since 1977 and cruised to a 2012 primary victory, to discuss his successful strategy.
Multiple sources questioned whether Cochran had the energy or drive of some of the Republican incumbents who have survived primaries and instead compared him to former Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar and Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, both of whom lost in recent years.
“I wish [Cochran] hadn’t run. This is where Saxby Chambliss got it right. If you don’t have it in you, then just step aside,” said an aide, referring to the Georgia Republican who announced his retirement instead of enduring a brutal primary. “Any of these guys who have won, they had to be ready to get in there and mix it up.”
For now, though, national Republicans are still outwardly committed, at least rhetorically, to Cochran, as they fear what a McDaniel general election candidacy might mean. Even though it's still a long shot that Democratic nominee Travis Childers, a former congressman, could take Cochran’s seat, a McDaniel win would embolden Democrats to spend there, which means the NRSC would have to choose whether to actively spend money on McDaniel. There is also fear that McDaniel’s potential negatives — whether it’s more information being divulged on the nursing home break-in or a socially conservative remark that goes viral — could be a drag on the party nationally.
Early Tuesday morning, NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins released the following statement on the race: “We will expect a vigorous debate about the future of our country over the next three weeks and we will continue to fully support Thad Cochran. We look forward to him emerging victorious in the runoff."