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Republicans: “Thank God for Mississippi!”

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dissecting Thad Cochran’s comeback and other notes from Tuesday’s primaries

Editors’ Note : A version of the story below appeared in Politico Magazine on Wednesday morning as Thank God for Mississippi . The Crystal Ball is taking a break for July 4, so our next edition will be published in two weeks, on Thursday, July 10. — The Editors

“Mississippi adds another variant to the politics of the South. Northerners, provincials that they are, regard the South as one large Mississippi. Southerners, with their eye for distinction, place Mississippi in a class by itself…every other southern state finds some reason to fall back on the soul-satisfying exclamation, ‘Thank God for Mississippi!’”

- V. O. Key Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation, 1949

Establishment Republicans across the country are saying “Thank God for Mississippi,” but not in the derisive way that political scientist V.O. Key describes it above. The state’s Republican voters, and probably quite a few Democrats, allowed the GOP establishment to fend off a Tea Party challenge to a sitting senator. In the process, they kept Democrats from potentially expanding the Senate’s general election playing field in November and from giving anti-establishment forces in the Republican Senate caucus another ally.

Mississippi, a state often ignored by the national political world, managed to do something rarely seen in politics: Produce two upsets in the same race in a three-week span. And it bucked a trend of generally pathetic turnout in primaries nationwide to produce the second and then first-largest primary turnouts in the history of Mississippi Republican politics.

Mississippi, a trailblazing leader in voter participation? It has been a very odd primary season indeed.

Sen. Thad Cochran, the Southern gentleman and six-term Republican senator, entered the initial primary as a very slight favorite on June 3. And as results came in that night, he seemed set to barely get over the 50% mark. Then Jones County, state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s home base, reported in with a whopping margin and turnout for the insurgent challenger, helping McDaniel finish slightly ahead of the incumbent in the initial round of balloting, though both were just shy of the necessary majority.

Things looked grim for Cochran. In the weeks leading up the initial primary, the Cochran camp insisted that high turnout was the key to victory, and turnout was high: higher than the 2012 presidential primary, and the biggest turnout the state had ever seen in a GOP primary. And yet Cochran still finished second.

Team Cochran continued to insist they could expand the electorate, but history suggested this was a longshot: In 37 of 40 Senate primary runoffs conducted since 1980, turnout had decreased from the initial primary to the runoff. Overall, turnout typically drops by about a third from the primary to the runoff.

The Cochran forces were right: The turnout in the runoff went up by 18%, jumping from about 319,000 in the initial primary to about 375,000 in the runoff (and that number will probably only increase as the results are finalized). While both candidates gained votes in places, Cochran gained more and eked out a two-point win.

Let’s be blunt: It is awfully hard to draw cosmic conclusions about the Mississippi Senate race when the six-term incumbent lost by a little in the first primary and won by a little in the second primary. Yes, politics — like some other sports we could name — is a game of inches, and Cochran gained a half a yard in three weeks. It’s enough to almost certainly make him a seven-term senator, though he must be shocked that he only squeaked back into his seat after serving 36 years in the Senate and providing more pork for Mississippi than exists on all the hog farms in Iowa combined.

With that vital caution in mind, here are eight takeaways from this down-and-dirty contest that V.O. Key would almost certainly recognize as a Magnolia State original.

(1) The Tea Party, or the unorganized mass of voters who identify with the movement’s anti-establishment and outsider tenets, is alive and well. They don’t win every race, or even a large majority of them, but they are now well established as a significant faction of the GOP in many states and congressional districts. Republican Party leaders can’t wish them away; the leaders need to deal them in, to the extent possible.

(2) The establishment may get down but it is never out. Cochran’s victory, as slim as it was, was an impressive feat for the national and state party leadership. Former Gov. Haley Barbour and his family, such as nephew Henry Barbour, never let up, and they dragged the candidate over the finish line. Cochran and his interest-group allies outraised McDaniel by three to one as of the most recent report, although outside spending by conservative groups helped McDaniel. The endorsements for Cochran were so numerous that a casual observer couldn’t keep up. Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s last-minute TV ad was probably helpful, but the attacks on McDaniel made much more difference. The insurgent looked younger, fresher, and more appealing before his dirty laundry got a thorough airing over the last three weeks. The process isn’t pretty, but party leaders will do what they have to do to win — and arguably, they know the process, the geography, and the levers of power better than any other faction.

(3)  The national Republican Party is the big winner. Former Rep. Travis Childers, the Democratic nominee, probably wasn’t going to beat even a controversial GOP nominee in Mississippi during a midterm election in a state where President Obama’s approval rating is quite low. But the Democratic Party could have made McDaniel and his controversies the face of the Republican Party in plenty of competitive contests around the nation. Nowhere was the jubilation greater, once Cochran had won, than in the D.C. halls of GOP power. Now they don’t have to spend a dime this fall in Mississippi, and they don’t have to waste a breath defending McDaniel elsewhere.

(4) Strategic voting is very much alive, even in this era of intense polarization. It’s not easy to get Democrats to participate in a Republican primary, but a sizeable number apparently did so to save Cochran’s bacon, just as Democrats came out in force to help vote Eric Cantor out of office in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District on June 10. Democrats added to Cantor’s woes, but challenger Dave Brat would have won without any Democratic support; Cochran’s victory margin of about 6,400 votes may well have been provided by African Americans, who were recruited by Cochran’s campaign and who realized the incumbent senator was a better choice for their interests than McDaniel. There was a relatively strong positive correlation of r = .64 between the black population percentage of Mississippi counties and turnout change. So while there was increased turnout in almost every county across the state, generally speaking, the higher the black population of a county, the greater its percentage increase in turnout. This suggests that the efforts of the Cochran campaign and its allies to reach out to black voters did indeed have some effect on the outcome. Mississippi’s open primary system permitted voters in these predominantly Democratic counties to participate in the runoff as long as they hadn’t voted in the June 3 Democratic primary. With Childers winning the Democratic nomination for the Senate in a walk, and with no gubernatorial battle until 2015, there were probably some Democratic voters who didn’t bother to vote on June 3, meaning that they could impact the GOP runoff.

Interestingly, Cochran’s appeals to African-American voters, independents, and other non-Republican base voters may have led more white conservatives to back McDaniel on runoff Election Day. There was a fairly strong negative correlation of r = -.62 between the African-American populations of counties and McDaniel’s change in performance. That is, the larger the black percentage of a county’s population, the more likely McDaniel was to see his vote percentage worsen from the primary, while in counties with smaller black populations McDaniel tended to see improvement. To put this another way, the Mississippi counties with a black population higher than the state’s median county saw turnout increase by 27% over the runoff, and Cochran won these counties by about 25,000 votes. Meanwhile, the counties with a black population lower than the median had a turnout increase of 13%, and McDaniel won these counties by about 19,000 votes (Cochran’s overall victory margin of nearly 6,400 votes is about the difference between those two numbers). Some political and religious leaders in the black community obviously made a decision to do something unusual for these times. It will be interesting to see if and how Cochran reacts or rewards them in what is almost certain to be his last Senate term.

(5) A small number of House and Senate incumbents typically lose renomination every cycle. Since the end of World War II, 2% of House incumbents who sought another term were not renominated by their party, and 5% of Senate incumbents. So far this year, 273 of 275 House incumbents (99%) and 18 of 18 Senate incumbents (100%) have won renomination. So the anti-incumbent thesis, so prominent after the upending of Cantor two weeks ago, collides with the cold facts. Anti-establishment forces in the GOP might still go after Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, but their opponents are weaker than McDaniel. Cochran was very clearly the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbent in this year’s primary season, and he has survived, just barely.

(6)  Despite their perfect record in Senate primaries so far this cycle, some Senate incumbents on the Republican side are having a harder time this year than they are used to. Cochran was forced into a runoff that he barely won. Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky all won around 60% of the vote or less in their primaries, and no one would call their opponents especially strong.

(7) There are intriguing “what ifs” in those other races: What if, say, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) had gone after his shadow foe from his 2010 primary, McConnell, and campaigned against the minority leader with his own candidate instead of providing him lukewarm support? Or suppose Cornyn had been opposed by a more credible candidate than outgoing Rep. Steve Stockman (R, TX-36)? If Graham had faced one of the Tea Party congressmen in his state’s delegation, he might have been forced into a runoff at the least. Perhaps the incumbent record would not be spotless.

(8)  But this also hints at a bigger challenge for outsider forces in the Republican Party. The incumbents — at least the skilled ones — can co-opt their opponents and dissuade potential challengers from running. They work hard to keep the “what ifs” purely theoretical. Look at the recent vote for House majority leader: Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23) orchestrated his contacts and called in his favors, making clear to possible opponents that he was going to win the job. The outsider Tea Party congressman who did challenge him, Rep. Raul Labrador (R, ID-1), openly disdained the insider politicking required to grab a job like House majority leader. Unless he acquires some of McCarthy’s skill set, he’ll remain a lonely voice. Anti-establishment forces can learn organizational lessons from the insiders they are trying to replace.

This remarkable race reminds us that every campaign is different, and sometimes a campaign can turn out to be unique. Incumbents who fall behind in the first primary rarely resurge in the runoff. Turnout usually falls in the runoff compared to the initial primary. A short runoff campaign often aids the candidate with momentum, the one who fared better than expected in the first primary. None of these things occurred in the 2014 Mississippi GOP Senate contest. The voters turned the gloom-and-doom pre-election analysis about Cochran’s impending demise on its head.

Ratings change

With Cochran’s win, we are moving Mississippi back to Safe Republican for the November general election.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change

Table 1 - June 26, 2014

Cochran can go out on his own terms

Since the start of popular elections for Senate a century ago, 140 senators have won at least four consecutive Senate elections for the same seat (regular or special). Of these, Cochran narrowly avoided becoming the 27th to exit the Senate after losing in a primary or general election. Thus, about one-fifth (19%) of these long-serving senators were ultimately rejected by voters. While it looks like Cochran will remain for a seventh term, three of his fellow Senate lions — Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) — are retiring at the end of the current Congress.

Table 2 shows how these 140 senators eventually exited the Senate. Note that Cochran is one of the 14 who remains.

Table 2: The fate of “Senate lions”

Table 2 - June 26, 2014

Notes: Sen. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-SC) is included in the “Lost renomination” category; he died in office in 1944 after losing renomination but also before the end of his term. Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY) is included in the “Lost reelection” category; he lost renomination in the 1980 Republican primary to future Sen. Al D’Amato (R-NY) but then lost in the general election as the Liberal nominee.

Source : Crystal Ball research

Other contests

Here are some takeaways from the five other states that had noteworthy contests on Tuesday night:

Colorado : National Republicans feared that former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R), known mostly as a hawk on immigration issues, would win the GOP nomination to oppose Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in the fall. Tancredo’s third-party bid in 2010 — he ended up getting 36% of the vote, much more than the actual Republican nominee — doomed GOP prospects here four years ago. But Tancredo lost to former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), more of an establishment favorite. Beauprez is an underdog in this Leans Democratic race, and it’s not like he’s an obviously great candidate: He lost by 17 points to former Gov. Bill Ritter (D) in the 2006 gubernatorial race. But he’s less of a lightning rod than Tancredo, which arguably could be helpful to other Colorado Republicans on the ballot, and he also has a fighting chance at an upset if conditions merit.

We mentioned last week that Rep. Doug Lamborn (R, CO-5) could potentially face some trouble in his primary against Bentley Rayburn (R), a retired Air Force general and past Lamborn foe. Sure enough, Lamborn only won with 52.5% of the vote. Mitt Romney won 59% of the vote in this district in 2012, so it shouldn’t be as competitive in the general election. Meanwhile, earlier this year Rep. Cory Gardner (R, CO-4) pushed 2010 Senate nominee Ken Buck (R) out of the Senate race against Sen. Mark Udall (D). Buck moved down to compete for Gardner’s open House seat, and he easily won the primary. He’s a favorite to be elected in the fall in another 59% Romney district.

Florida : The Republican House caucus is back up to its full strength of 234 members after businessman and now-Rep. Curt Clawson (R, FL-19) easily won a special election. He replaces former Rep. Trey Radel (R), who resigned the seat after he was caught buying cocaine from an undercover federal agent. There are now two vacancies in the House in safe Democratic seats: NC-12 and NJ-1.

Maryland: As expected, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) easily romped to the Democratic nomination for governor in the Old Line State. Winning over a majority (51%), he more than doubled each of the vote totals of his main rivals, Attorney General Doug Gansler (24%) and state Delegate Heather Mizeur (22%). While Gansler had long trailed in the polls, it’s got to rankle him that Mizeur nearly equaled his vote total despite Gansler raising and spending millions more. Larry Hogan (R), a former Cabinet secretary with ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich, won the Republican nomination with 43% of the vote. Brown will be a heavy favorite in the general election and will be positioned to make some history: Should he win, Brown will become only the third elected black governor in American history, following in the footsteps of former Gov. Doug Wilder (D-VA), who won his lone term in 1989, and Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA), who was first elected in 2006 and is not running for reelection this year.

New York : The action here was in the House, and the takeaway is that Washington Republicans — just like in Mississippi — got the results they wanted.

On Long Island, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R) handily defeated self-funder George Demos (R), a former Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor, for the right to face Rep. Tim Bishop (D, NY-1) in this very competitive district. We’re calling this race Leans Democratic but it might be a Toss-up in the fall: Bishop handily beat Zeldin in more optimal conditions in 2008, but expect a tighter contest this time.

Upstate, former Bush administration aide Elise Stefanik (R) beat 2010 and 2012 nominee Matt Doheny (R) for the right to take on documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf (D) in an open North Country seat currently held by retiring Rep. Bill Owens (D, NY-21). This is a Toss-up race but in a year like this one Republicans should ultimately feel a bit better about their prospects than Democrats. Just south of that district, moderate Rep. Richard Hanna (R, NY-22) held on 53% to 47% against Tea Party Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney (R) in another race we flagged last week. Both Stefanik and Hanna were the beneficiaries of lavish outside spending from establishment-oriented Republican groups.

On the Democratic side, long-serving Rep. Charlie Rangel (D, NY-13) has once again shown himself to be a survivor: Rangel edged state Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D) in a rematch from 2012. Rangel has said this will be his last election. And in the open NY-4, where Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D) is retiring, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice defeated Nassau County Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams in the Democratic primary, while former Nassau County Legislature Presiding Officer Bruce Blakeman defeated attorney Frank Scaturro on the Republican side. Rice, one of the most impressive House fundraisers in the country even as a non-incumbent, is a big favorite in November in a Likely Democratic district that is close to moving off the competitive board.

Oklahoma: Many analysts, including the Crystal Ball , thought there was a decent chance that the special GOP Senate primary battle between Rep. James Lankford (R, OK-5) and ex-state House Speaker T.W. Shannon (R) would go to a runoff. Polling seemed to suggest a close race, and five other candidates promised to get at least some portion of the vote, potentially keeping everyone below 50%. However, Lankford ended up winning his party’s nomination comfortably, garnering 57% of the vote to beat Shannon by about 24 points on primary night. In the special Democratic Senate primary, state Sen. Connie Johnson and 2010 nominee Jim Rogers advanced to an Aug. 26 runoff; no matter which Democrat wins, Lankford will be a safe bet for victory in November.

In other Sooner State contests, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) easily won renomination in the state’s regular GOP Senate primary and will be an overwhelming favorite to win reelection against financial planner Matt Silverstein (D). In OK-5, the six-person Republican field battling to succeed Lankford saw Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas and ex-state Sen. Steve Russell advance to the August runoff, with the winner essentially assured a seat in the House of Representatives.

The power of congressional incumbency

As mentioned above, the 275 House incumbents who have sought renomination, 273 have successfully moved on to the general election. Excluding incumbents from California, with its top-two blanket primary system, only 14 of 228 incumbents (including the two losers, Republican Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Ralph Hall of Texas) have failed to win at least 60% in their primaries or runoffs. If we include any California incumbent who faced at least one other member of his/her party during the primary, only 102 of 275 incumbents have had any same-party opposition in their renomination battles.

A note on style

After a vigorous internal debate that resulted in some violence and at least one hospitalization, the Crystal Ball — by secret vote — has decided to adopt the serial comma. The decision is final, even when the hospitalized employee returns to work. For those non-punctuation nuts out there, the serial comma (or Oxford comma) is the comma between the second and third items in a set of three: So, “eggs, meat, and cheese” versus “eggs, meat and cheese.” Associated Press style, which typically governs writing style decisions here, frowns on the serial comma — although that AP standard is being questioned. Ultimately, we decided the use of the extra comma reduces the capacity for confusion: Just ask JFK, Stalin, and — well, click on the link. Give us a little time to fully integrate this change: We must unlearn what we have learned.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik

Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Geoffrey Skelley

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.   Comments about this content should be directed to the author.

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