How He Did It: Thad Cochran's Surprising Victory

Marcus Ward of Jackson, Miss., celebrates the news that U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., wins his primary runoff race against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, of Ellisville, for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate at his victory party, Tuesday, June 24, 2014 in Jackson, Miss. Cochran defeated challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi's Republican primary runoff Tuesday, successfully expanding the original primary electorate to deal another blow to tea party conservatives in a midterm election year dominated mostly by traditional Republican powers. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Rogelio V. Solis / AP

How Thad Cochran pulled off his surprising victory

In national elections, you typically see an outcome that defies political gravity -- meaning the winner shouldn’t have won under normal circumstances -- once every year or two. But we’ve now seen two of these outcomes in the last three weeks. First was Eric Cantor’s jaw-dropping primary defeat on June 10. And second was last night’s equally stunning runoff victory by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) over Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. Why was it stunning? Because we can’t remember the last time an incumbent who finished second in a primary won his runoff -- and did it just three weeks later. (SmartPolitics says two other MS SEN candidate accomplished this feat: Hubert Stephens in 1922 and Theodore Bilbo in 1934). Our friend Chris Cillizza put it well: Cochran pitched a political perfect game, particularly by expanding the electorate and getting African Americans to vote for him in the GOP runoff. (We’d add that this was the equivalent of a five-strikeouts-per-nine-innings pitcher fanning 15 batters in this perfect game.) Indeed, if you want to see how Cochran was able to expand the African-American electorate last night, just look at Hinds County, which is 70% black. In the June 3 primary, Cochran beat McDaniel here by fewer than 6,000 votes, 11,479 to 5,830. But last night, Cochran’s margin was nearly 11,000 votes, 17,927 to 6,962. In a race that Cochran won by 6,000 votes, that’s pretty much your ballgame there. What’s even more incredible is how overall turnout actually INCREASED from the original primary (318,902) to the runoff (374,893).

And how it represents another defeat for the Tea Party

Cochran’s victory puts an exclamation point on the GOP establishment victories over the Tea Party so far this cycle (think Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Jack Kingston/David Perdue in Georgia, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, and now Thad Cochran in Mississippi). In fact, the Tea Party’s one big win this cycle -- defeating Eric Cantor -- came without any of the national Tea Party groups supporting Cantor challenger Dave Brat. So even though Brat is a Tea Party-kind of guy, you could argue that his victory had little to do with national Tea Party groups. Yet more than anything else, Cochran’s win, and McDaniel’s defeat, is a huge blow to the conservative Club for Growth, which mounted two big campaigns against GOP incumbents -- Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). Both won. And that sends this message: The Club for Growth and other groups can take you on, and you can still survive. As that famous line from Omar in “The Wire” goes: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

McDaniel: “There is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that's decided by liberal Democrats”

Even though Cochran beat McDaniel by more 6,000 votes, McDaniel didn’t concede in his remarks last night. And he appeared to complain that African Americans voting for Cochran lost him the race. “There is something a bit strange, there is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that's decided by liberal Democrats,” he said. “So much for bold colors- so much for principle.” But let’s get something straight: There was nothing illegal about a Republican campaign getting Democrats or African Americans to vote in primaries/runoffs when that state doesn’t have party registration. And what is strange hearing a candidate who wanted to represent a state with nearly 40% of residents being African American that he didn’t want their vote in the primary/runoff. As we noted yesterday, keep an eye on how McDaniel and his supporters handle the influx of African-American voters into this campaign. To say he’s not handling it well is an understatement, and it doesn’t reflect well on the Tea Party movement in general. He’s playing to stereotype that Democrats have been pushing. By the way, don’t miss what conservative writer Erick Erickson wrote about Cochran’s victory and McDaniel’s defeat: “I continue to oppose a third party. I’m just not sure what the Republican Party really stands for any more other than telling Obama no and telling our own corporate interests yes. That’s not much of a platform.”

Lankford wins Senate GOP primary in Oklahoma, avoiding runoff

In the other somewhat surprising result last night, Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) cleared the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff in the GOP primary for Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) seat. Many, including us, had expected that the race would head to a runoff between Lankford and T.W. Shannon. And while Cochran’s victory was a loss for the Tea Party, Lankford’s win was a defeat for Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and other conservative populists that had backed (and campaigned for) Shannon. Of course, these folks never really explained why they picked Shannon over Lankford. Both were conservatives, rising stars in their state. It appears Cruz and Palin were star struck about the idea of backing Shannon out of pure symbolism. But again, like we saw in the Cochran race, campaigns matter and Lankford ran a good one. As Cochran and Lankford reminded us last night, campaigns matter.

Beauprez wins GOP gubernatorial primary in Colorado, giving GOP the best ticket they could hope for

In Colorado, meanwhile, Republicans got a break as more moderate Bob Beauprez defeated Tom Tancredo and others in the GOP gubernatorial primary last night. Beauprez will take on incumbent Gov. Hickenlooper (D) in the fall. Colorado would very well be the MOST INTERESTING state to watch in November, especially as it relates to 2016. Why? Because Republicans now have about the best statewide ticket they could hope for -- Beauprez for governor, Cory Gardner for Senate. If they can’t win with this ticket against Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall in this midterm year, it’s hard to see how Republicans will start winning again in Colorado. And remember, if Republicans can’t win Colorado and its electoral votes in presidential elections, it’s hard to see how they can win presidential elections. The state’s mix of suburban and Latinos voters have proven to be a challenge for the GOP for the last decade. Can the GOP turn things around among these two voting blocs? Folks, start paying attention to Colorado!

Charlie Rangel is BARELY ahead

The other competitive race we were watching last night still hasn’t been called. The New York Times: “Representative Charles B. Rangel, seeking a 23rd term, held a slim lead in a fierce battle early Wednesday with State Senator Adriano D. Espaillat in their primary election contest, a rematch that was largely fought along ethnic and generational lines. With 100 percent of precincts reporting after 1 a.m., Mr. Rangel led by just over 1,800 votes, or 47.4 percent to 43.6 percent. Absentee ballots and affidavit ballots filed by voters at polling stations could determine the outcome of the race. As of Tuesday night, the New York City Board of Elections said it had given out 2,834 absentee ballots, of which 903 were returned so far, and 738 of those deemed valid. Absentee ballots must be received by the board no later than next Tuesday in order to be counted. No count of affidavit ballots was immediately available.”

Bill Clinton defends Hillary

Bill Clinton defended his wife Hillary against the growing narrative that she’s out of touch given her recent “dead broke” comment. “She’s not out of touch, and she advocated and worked as a senator for things that were good for ordinary people. And before that, all her life – and the people asking her questions should put this into some sort of context – I remember when we were in law school, she was out trying to get legal assistance for poor people. I remember she was working on trying, believing in paid leave for pregnant mothers in the 1970s,” he told NBC’s David Gregory yesterday.

Poll: 71% say Iraq war wasn’t worth it

And lastly, here was our NBC/WSJ/Annenberg poll we released last night: “A divided nation finally agrees on something overwhelmingly: the war in Iraq was simply not worth fighting. Seventy-one percent of Americans now say that the war in Iraq “wasn’t worth it,” a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll shows, with skepticism about the lengthy war effort up substantially even in the last 18 months. Just 22 percent now believe the 2003 war effort was worthwhile.” More: “In a January 2013 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asking the same question, 59 percent of Americans said the war wasn’t worth it, versus 35 percent who said the opposite.”

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