06/05/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2014

Mississippi Senator Faces Uphill Battle To Turn Out Voters In Runoff


WASHINGTON -- As election returns came in Tuesday night in Mississippi and it became clear that the Republican Senate primary was headed for a runoff, the state's former governor Haley Barbour was on the phone plotting how to raise enough money to help incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in the coming three-week contest.

At the party in Hattiesburg for Cochran's tea party challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, campaign aides stood outside their war room in the town's convention center engaged in a similar discussion of how to raise money for just three weeks.

The primary was a big-money affair. Between the two campaigns and outside groups, $13.4 million has been spent on the race so far, according to The Center for Public Integrity. Now, more money will pour into the Magnolia State to pay for ads on TV, radio, mail, and for rental cars and the like.

But now the economy of value has shifted. While money still has its obvious role, another commodity may be more precious: bodies. The candidates now need volunteers more than almost anything else.

Runoff elections, as a rule, have lower participation rates. Only the most ardent and committed voters will show up to vote a second time, three weeks after an election, especially for one in which there are no other down-ballot local contests. Whoever can push, pull, nag, persuade, alarm, annoy and cajole the most bodies to the polls on June 24 will win. In this process, phone calls are good; door knocks are better. And face-to-face contact among peers and friends is often best (unless it's so annoying it turns people off).

McDaniel's base of support consists largely of the intensely religious and the deeply fed-up. He is supported by national conservative groups that are not only pouring millions of dollars into the race, but are also using their email lists to call upon activists across the state. Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks have all worked to build awareness and energize their supporters for McDaniel.

The Club for Growth, which spent $2.5 million in the primary on TV, radio and mail ads for McDaniel, has not yet bought any ad time for the runoff. The group said in a statement that it will "vigorously pursue this race to its conclusion." But spokesman Barney Keller said the club won't jump the gun to start spending money on ads for the runoff.

"If we feel like it's necessary to spend more money, we will. If we don't, we won't," Keller said. "Sometimes we stop spending money if we think our candidate is going to lose no matter what we do, and sometimes we stop spending money if we think our candidate is going to win no matter what we do.

"It also sort of depends on what the other side does," Keller said. If Cochran or his allies start spending big in one particular media market, then Club for Growth would seek to counter their influence there, he said.

Cochran's supporters are also in a wait-and-see mode for the moment. One powerful Republican in the state who has endorsed Cochran and campaigned for him captured the sentiments of Mississippi political observers the day after the primary ended in a draw. When asked whether Cochran had a chance, he paused and said he'd have a better sense in a few days.

"I want to see what the boys are going to do," he said.

One could interpret "the boys" as a reference to Haley Barbour and his nephews Henry and Austin. Henry Barbour, the third of five sons of Haley's brother Jeppie, runs a super PAC that sponsored TV and radio ads and direct mail efforts that some national Republicans think kept Cochran in the race. Austin Barbour, the youngest of the five, is on the senator's campaign as a senior adviser. (In a twist, Jeppie Barbour, their father, endorsed McDaniel.)

Fellow Mississippi native Stuart Stevens, who was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, is also traveling with Cochran, as well as working on his TV ads.

The Barbours' commitment to the Cochran campaign is one of the biggest reasons that observers aren't ready to write off the 76-year old incumbent senator, even if the deck seems stacked against him.

Henry Barbour said that while he is trying to raise a few million dollars for television spending, he is "going to make a real effort on the ground" to attract votes from "all Mississippians, white and black."

He had just finished a phone conversation with a contact on the Gulf Coast who had called to give him an idea for a TV ad. "I said, 'What we really need you to do is take your church directory and school directory and create a little phone bank of 10 volunteers and start calling people,'" Barbour recalled.

Barbour was hitting hard on the theme that McDaniel, 41, is beholden to the outside groups that provide him air cover and ground troops. "They want to buy themselves a senate seat in Mississippi to fit their political agenda, not to do anything for Mississippi," he said.

Keller, the Club for Growth spokesman, called such characterizations "desperate spin."

The McDaniel campaign on Thursday also criticized Cochran's supporters for indicating that they would try to turn out Democrats in the state.

"It is sad but not surprising that Senator Cochran is attempting to court liberal Democrats in a desperate attempt to win a Republican primary," McDaniel said in a statement.

Cochran and his allies have argued that the senator has protected the state's financial interests at the federal level, while McDaniel has told voters he was "not going to do anything for you."

"I'm going to get the government off your back, then I'm gonna let you do it for yourself," McDaniel said.

The Cochran campaign sees an opening in the runoff among voters who may not have participated in the initial primary. The problem is that getting such voters to the polls takes a lot of work -- and a lot of manpower. And Barbour's intention of courting black voters is problematic, given the tremendous cultural resistance in the African-American community to voting Republican.

One poll worker, an African-American man in Barbour's hometown of Yazoo City, told HuffPost on the day of the primary that despite Cochran's work on behalf of the state, most black voters would never vote for a Republican.

Even if the Cochran campaign does somehow gain traction among black voters in Mississippi, that would likely draw the ire of state Democrats, who have their own candidate, former Rep. Travis Childers, waiting in the wings.

The biggest challenge for the Cochran campaign is the meager ground game it fielded for the primary. There was very little door knocking, phone calls or mail sent, and little to no digital advertising, according to sources with knowledge of the campaign. And the campaign had not considered the possibility of a runoff until a few days before the vote.

"Ground game is not something you just snap your fingers and it happens,” Henry Barbour said, "but we've run 28 campaigns here."

"The conventional wisdom that McDaniel has all the advantages here is easy to say but not necessarily true. I think his vote is essentially tapped out," Barbour said. "I think his people will return. But Cochran has a whole lot more upside. There's so many people in the state who value what he does for the state. And there's a lot of people who think Chris McDaniel won't effectively represent all 3 million Mississippians."

Andy Taggart, an attorney and Republican veteran of Mississippi politics, said the runoff promises to be an epic political clash. He told HuffPost, "I think the next three weeks will be a campaign like Mississippi has never seen before."



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