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Tea Party Takedown: Thad Cochran Went Left to Get Right

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI – With his political legacy on the line, Sen. Thad Cochran and his allies employed a risky strategy to win a brutal Republican runoff against long odds -- and it worked.

After finishing narrowly behind challenger Chris McDaniel in the GOP primary three weeks ago, Cochran, who had been trying to match his tea party-backed opponent in blasting Obama and appealing to conservatives, reversed course. He courted liberal-leaning African-Americans here and emphasized his role in bringing federal money back home, the kind of spending Tea Party conservatives oppose.

Cochran risked losing the runoff by turning off even Republicans who had voted for him the first time by appealing so much to Democrats.

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The campaign at times took on the look of a general election, with Cochran running to the center, while McDaniel focused on his opposition to Obamacare and other national issues. Black pastors here organized their congregations to back Cochran as if he were a Democrat, noting that the incumbent had helped fund historically black colleges and other initiatives that appeal to African-Americans and linking McDaniel to the Tea Party, which black voters feel is unduly harsh to President Obama.

“The dislike of the tea party motivated folks in the African-America community,” said Bishop Ronnie Crudup, a pastor of the New Horizon Church who backed Cochran and attended his election night celebration.

Crudup, who said he is an independent but has backed President Obama in the last two elections, added, “black folks wanted to take a stand.”

While it’s difficult to say exactly whether black voters or whites carried him over the top, Cochran made huge gains in Hinds County, the largest county in Mississippi (it includes Jackson) and one that is about 70 percent black. After winning about 11,000 votes and finishing about 5,000 votes ahead of McDaniel in this county on June 3, the incumbent won Hinds with just under 18,000 total votes and a margin of almost 11,000.

That margin was crucial for Cochran, who won by less than 7,000 votes overall.

Cochran and his campaign accomplished an unusual feat in growing the electorate. Runoff campaigns generally have lower turnouts than the primary, but more than 370,000 people here cast ballots on Tuesday, compared to 320,000 on June 3.