For all the analysis about just how embattled Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi barely staved off a challenge Tuesday from tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel, evidence is strong that the incumbent was saved by crossover voting from traditional Democratic supporters and a strong effort to tie opponent McDaniel to cutting national defense.
Three weeks after trailing insurgent McDaniel in the initial primary, 36-year-incumbent Cochran apparently eked out an unexpected win in the run-off Tuesday with about 50.5 percent of the vote.
In avoiding the title of "first incumbent senator of 2014 to be denied renomination," Cochran also defied an historical trend in the South of defeat for sitting senators who fail to win outright in the primary and are forced into runoffs. The last senator to avoid this fate was Cochran's fellow six-termer John McClellan of Arkansas, who fell short in the 1972 Democratic primary against then-Rep. David Pryor but then roared back to win in the resulting run-off.
In Cochran's case, "there's no doubt that a big Democratic crossover in predominantly black areas of the Delta part of the state gave him a big upset victory which no poll predicted," veteran elections analyst Jay O'Callaghan told Newsmax.
In appearing before supporters last night, McDaniel said the race was "not over" and suggested that he might support an investigation into whether there was illegal voting in the run-off. Under Magnolia State election law, voters who went to the polls in the Democratic primary are not permitted to cross over and vote in the Republican runoff.
A Cochran spokesman said that the "Thad for Mississippi" campaign emphasized to voters that "Mississippians who voted in the Republican Primary or did not vote on June 3, 2014, can vote in the Republican runoff on June 24, 2014."
The Cochran campaign also hit hard at McDaniel's endorsement from Ron Paul, and noted the former presidential hopeful's longtime support for slashing defense spending. McDaniel responded that he was proud to have Paul's backing but did not agree with him completely on every issue.
In a state that depends strongly on the defense industry, Cochran emphasized his background as a U.S. Navy veteran and that he would have two years as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee if Republicans won control of the Senate. On the morning before the voting, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, appeared at a large rally on Cochran's behalf at which veterans were prominently featured.
"Can't imagine facing another BRAC [base-closing commission] without Thad for MS," veteran Manning Phillips tweeted on behalf of the senator.
Although national conservative groups such as Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund unleashed strong media broadsides against Cochran for his record on spending, just about every state Republican official from fellow Sen. Roger Wicker and Gov. Phil Bryant stumped hard for the embattled incumbent.
"It’s simply too close to call, with an insurgent campaign like McDaniel had, Cochran had to stabilize coming out of the June 3rd primary," Hayes Dent, lobbyist and Mississippi Republican operative since 1972, said on the day of the voting, "He has done that and while it appears all turnout models above the June 3rd favor Cochran…it’s still a toss up."
But with a little help from his friends, and some traditional Democrats, Cochran narrowly won the toss.
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