GOP: Thank God for Mississippi

"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 long shot: 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.

Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley are analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. You can read more of their reviews of political races at www.centerforpolitics.org.