It stands to reason that in the wake of one of the more bizarre Senate primaries in recent memory, no one can say with confidence exactly where things stand the morning after.
A runoff appeared likely in the GOP Senate primary between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and tea party challenger state Sen. Chris McDaniel on Tuesday night, with the race tight, neither at over 50 percent and a little-known third candidate, Thomas Carey, tracking just under 2 percent.McDaniel and Cochran swapped leads as results came in. With 97 percent of precincts in, unofficial results showed McDaniel leading 49.5 percent, or 147,451 votes, to Cochran’s 49 percent or 146,071 votes. To avoid a runoff, a candidate must receive more than 50 percent.
In theory, one of these candidates may yet pick up enough votes to cross the 50% threshold and advance to the general election, though local observers seem to think that’s unlikely. The more realistic scenario is that McDaniel and Cochran will come up just shy of a majority and meet again in a runoff, which would be held in three weeks on June 24.
But it’ll be worth watching to see if Cochran fully intends to bother. In a runoff, intensity of support is generally determinative, and given what we know, this suggests McDaniel would be favored. This is admittedly speculative, based on nothing but circumstances, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the six-term, 76-year-old incumbent, who recently conceded he contemplated retirement, decides to bow out gracefully now rather than fight another three-week round in which the odds are against him.
That said, whether Cochran fights on or not, also keep an eye on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which may suddenly decide this year’s race in Mississippi is worth a second look.
For Democrats, the prospect of running against Cochran was unappealing, and with the incumbent on the ballot, the DSCC was likely to invest its resources elsewhere. But running against McDaniel is a different story.
As Benjy Sarlin explained, “Cochran’s campaign may have been uninspiring, but to establishment Republicans, his opponent was a dangerously combustible alternative. Critics accused McDaniel of flirting with neo-Confederate and white supremacist activists and questioned whether he might even put the ultra-conservative state into play for Democrats. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and a new super PAC run by Republican National committeeman Henry Barbour spent over $2.7 million on the race, most of it attacking McDaniel.”
Republican officials in the GOP establishment, of course, would grudgingly have to fall in line behind the extremist candidate they tried to defeat, but in the meantime, Democratic officials may yet look at their nominee, former center-right Rep. Travis Childers, as a credible contender.
Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who’s polling firm will be doing work for Childers’ Senate race, said he expected “a lot of Cochran supporters, politicos, funders … to flock to Travis Childers if McDaniel does this and it’s going to send a real signal to the community that this race is real.” Anzalone said the race is similar to the 2012 Indiana Senate race where Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly was able to take advantage of tea party favorite state treasurer Richard Mourdock beating Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary.“It’s kind of the Joe Donnelly effect,” Anzalone said. “I mean Mourdock knocks off Lugar and Donnelly’s stock rises because you’re dealing with someone who’s on the fringe who exposes vulnerabilities and contrasts and at the same time has beat up on someone who’s very popular.”
To be sure, Dems probably shouldn’t get their hopes up – it is Mississippi, after all, and Childers’ fundraising has been anemic. But a race that was effectively off the table may yet become a battleground if McDaniel advances.