The mood in the war room of Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Mississippi) re-election campaign was “pretty dark” on the night of June 3.
Cochran, who has represented Mississippi in the Senate since 1978, was facing his toughest challenge yet. And he had failed to shake off his challenger, the Tea Party-aligned state Sen. Chris McDaniel, in the Republican primary that night.
Cochran was not in great shape heading into a runoff election. He had lost a plurality of the votes, barely avoiding outright elimination that night. And runoffs have typically benefitted the insurgent candidate in the race, whose supporters are more likely to show up and vote a second time on an atypical election day.
“It was a tough night,” one Cochran campaign adviser told Business Insider. “We’ve all been in politics. We all know. Incumbents don’t win runoffs. It was very gloomy. Everyone was saying, ‘What do we do?'”
Up stepped Stuart Stevens, the former Mitt Romney aide who worked in an advising capacity on the Cochran campaign. He gave what the Cochran campaign adviser said was a simple “pep talk.”
“OK, we’re in a runoff,” Stevens said, according to the adviser. “So let’s go out and win the damn runoff.”
That was easier said than done, considering the circumstances. But in the end, it was mission accomplished. Cochran pulled off a somewhat unprecedented and rather unthinkable victory over McDaniel in the Mississippi Senate primary runoff. He won by a little more than 6,500 votes, and he grabbed almost 51% of the vote.
Cochran won by pulling off a historic feat — for the first time in 30 years, the turnout in a Senate primary runoff actually increased. Cochran increased his vote total by almost 40,000. His campaign went about winning through a combination of support and circumstances that made up the “perfect storm,” as one campaign adviser put it.
Most of the donors and groups that supported him in the primary continued to do so when it appeared all hope was lost. The Chamber of Commerce went with an ad featuring former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, part of what the Chamber’s national political director Rob Engstrom said is a recurring history of employing “local messages from trusted messengers.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has made it a priority to defend incumbent Republican senators from primary challengers this year, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee refused to give up on Cochran even after he was forced into a runoff. Just a week after the primary, McConnell headlined a fundraiser that netted Cochran nearly $US1 million.
At the fundraiser, McConnell made a bold statement: “We’re going to win,” he said, according to a GOP source with knowledge of McConnell’s efforts on behalf of Cochran.
“It’s a moment that shows what’s possible when you keep your focus,” the GOP source said.
At the same time, Cochran altered his own campaign strategy, which one Republican called “detached” during the primary. He spent the last three weeks traversing the state, boasting of the federal money he’s brought back to one of the poorest states in America and cautioning that a McDaniel tenure wouldn’t be the same.
He focused on the fact that about 15% of Mississippi’s education budget comes from the federal government. He contrasted it with McDaniel’s comments that the word “education” wasn’t in the U.S. Constitution — and therefore, Washington shouldn’t be involved in education.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour — who remains one of the most influential political voices in the state and who backed his nephew’s pro-Cochran super PAC, Mississippi Conservatives — told Business Insider he saw a change from a “complacent” Cochran campaign during the primary to an energetic one during the runoff. He said issues came back to the forefront — like education, like military spending in the state.
“Almost everyone who voted in our primary thinks the country’s going to hell in a handbasket at warp speed,” Barbour told Business Insider in an interview Wednesday. “People did not have a particular recognition of what he had done for the state and what he could do for the state in his next six-year term, when he’ll be chairman of the Appropriations Committee for four years.
“Everybody who was of that mindset voted for change.”
Immediately following the runoff, the Cochran campaign and many of its allied groups turned their attention away from television and radio ads and toward an “old-school” approach toward campaigning — get-out-the-vote operations.
The Cochran campaign also tried to expand its umbrella of support by reaching out to non-traditional Republican primary voters in Mississippi. That included black voters — the vast majority of whom are Democrats — and Democrats in general, a strategy about which the Cochran campaign made no qualms.
It was a strategy that earned Cochran criticism from McDaniel, who claimed in a fiery speech Cochran had allowed “liberal Democrats” to decide the Republican primary. McDaniel still refused to concede on Wednesday, and said his campaign is looking into whether it can challenge the election results.
But the Cochran campaign argues its strategy wouldn’t have worked for every Republican politician. It comes from the reputation Cochran has built during 40-plus years in Congress.
“They know he’s a Republican. They know he’s conservative. Hell, he’s voted more than 100 times against Obamacare,” the Cochran adviser said. “But African-Americans in Mississippi also know that Sen. Cochran has always treated them fairly, even back in the 70s when everybody was still demagoguing on race issues. They know he’s a fair guy.”
The strategy worked. Cochran won 22 of 25 Mississippi counties that had an African-American population of above 50%. And voter turnout in those 25 counties increased by almost 40%, up from about a 17% turnout increase overall.
The rest is history.
“When you see things like that,” the Cochran adviser said, “it is pretty remarkable.”
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