The wild, mudslinging Mississippi Senate Republican primary is officially headed to a runoff, an outcome that sets up a potential doomsday scenario for the GOP’s hopes of capturing a Senate majority this year. But Republican strategists who spoke to Business Insider said they were confident that won’t happen.
Neither incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran or Tea Party-aligned insurgent state Sen. Chris McDaniel received the required 50% threshold to avoid a June 24 runoff. The official results, which came in Tuesday afternoon, gave McDaniel a 49.5-49.0 lead over Cochran.
Most strategists privately fret this was the worst possible outcome for the Republican Party.
For one, Cochran and McDaniel will slug it out for three more weeks, in a race both sides have called the most vicious in the country. Combined with a McDaniel win, there is a prevailing sense it could put a Senate seat in deep-red Mississippi in play, which would be a major hindrance to the GOP’s majority ambitions.
The consensus is that McDaniel will ride his momentum from Tuesday night to a runoff victory, according to multiple conversations with Republican strategists embedded in and/or familiar with the race.
McDaniel grabbing the plurality of votes was somewhat unexpected. Even supporters worry Cochran may not have the “energy” to give his all in an extra three weeks of campaigning. One strategist pointed to his decision not to address supporters as particularly baffling, and perhaps a signal his heart was not really in the race.
Furthermore, for Cochran, the path to victory was never through a runoff. There will be less turnout in three weeks, and it’s likely only the most energized — traditionally, the more conservative — will turn out to vote.
McDaniel’s potential victory has Democrats privately talking up the possibility of putting the seat in play. Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in Mississippi since 1982, and the fundamentals in the state provide Democrats with an even more daunting challenge than past triumphs over Tea Party-aligned candidates in states like Indiana.
Democrats will run centrist former Rep. Travis Childers in Mississippi in the general election, and they reportedly have conducted private polling showing a Childers-McDaniel race in a dead heat.
Democrats theorize Childers, who is popular among Independents and even some Republicans, could grab some of those votes against McDaniel. That wouldn’t happen against Cochran, who himself is broadly popular with Independents and some Democrats.
“Voters even in a red state will reject what he is, which is an extremist,” one Democratic strategist told Business Insider of McDaniel.
The comparison that has started popping up is between Mississippi and Indiana — where, in 2012, Tea Party-aligned Richard Mourdock made a controversial statement about abortion, starting a media firestorm and opening up a path for Democrat Joe Donnelly to win.
McDaniel, some GOP strategists worry, is prone to a mistake that could land him in hot water. He has made controversial remarks in his past about immigration and gay marriage, and made critical comments of hurricane relief.
However, many Republicans question that narrative, pointing to the fact Mississippi is an extremely polarised state and to differences between Mississippi and Democratic triumphs over Tea Party-aligned candidates in past elections. For one thing, Mississippi’s past electoral results make it a unique obstacle. President Barack Obama won 44% of the vote in the state in 2012, but the polarization was evident. Almost 90% of the state’s white vote went to Mitt Romney, far higher than the national 60%.
There’s also a significantly different political climate. Obama is much less popular than he was in 2012, as is his signature healthcare law, and Republicans have a fundamental advantage in non-presidential years.
“The idea that a Senate seat in Mississippi would be up for grabs, I think, is one hell of a stretch,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told Business Insider.
The only way that could change, he added, is if the establishment Republicans who have pushed hard against a McDaniel nomination make it a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” That is, if the National Republican Senatorial Committee refuses to endorse McDaniel, something to which it has not committed, would be a boon for Democrats.
“It’s just such a red state,” Mackowiak said. “And it’s even more red in this kind of environment.”
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.