06/26/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2014

Cochran Vs. McDaniel: The Winner And The Whiner


They said it couldn't be done. Or rather, that it shouldn't be done. But someone went and did it anyway. And now, they are frothing with incandescent anger.

That's the situation we're left with in the aftermath of the runoff election in the Republican Senate primary in Mississippi, where the perceived problem was that long-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran reached out to Democrats and black voters. And the angry parties? Everyone who supported the campaign waged against him by Mississippi state Senator and tea party darling Chris McDaniel, who was defeated in Tuesday's vote.

McDaniel and his camp are still seething over the tactics that Cochran deployed to win the election, which basically amounted to him extending a "For Your Consideration" plea to voters outside the traditional Republican base.

Here's the basic backstory for everyone who quite rightly decided to go on with their lives while everyone in politics was losing their minds over which rock-ribbed conservative was likely to serve in the Senate next year.

Cochran and McDaniel have been involved in one of the most bizarrely venal primary campaigns in recent memory -- and not just because it represented one of those "establishment Republican versus tea party insurgent" sort of races. The peak moment of awfulness came in late spring, when McDaniel "supporters were arrested in connection with allegedly photographing Cochran’s infirm wife in her nursing home room." Why did they do this? Apparently, their brilliant idea was to allege that Cochran was having affairs while his wife lay in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. It wasn't a particularly glorious moment in American politics.

The race proceeded to the primary, and after all the votes were counted, McDaniel took home 49.5 percent of the vote to Cochran's 49.0 percent. It was the presence of a third candidate, telephone installer turned realtor Thomas Carey, that determined the fate of the race. The 4,789 votes he earned were enough to deny anyone a majority, and so by rule, Cochran and McDaniel were headed to a runoff.

McDaniel was heavily favored to win the runoff -- the lion's share of post-primary polling found McDaniel holding 50 percent or more of the respondents. That's when Cochran remembered that the key to winning the election was to have more votes than his opponent, and made the perfectly logical decision to try expanding the electorate. Central to that strategy was to reach out to Mississippi's black voters.

This was an odd fit, to be sure. We're talking about a senator who voted for welfare reform and against the Affordable Care Act. But as Jamelle Bouie noted, the outreach nevertheless made sense, and Cochran wasn't entirely without a case he could present to those voters:

At the same time, Cochran isn't an ideologue, and—during his six terms—has funneled tens of billions in earmarks and funds to Mississippi, propping the state's economy and creating jobs for thousands of his constituents. As the Times notes, Cochran has secured funds for "health centers, historically black colleges and infrastructure," directly and indirectly boosting black communities in the state.

To make a long story short, the strategy worked. And now McDaniel and his supporters are acting as if what went down in Mississippi was some sort of dirty trick.

One thing that does need to be accounted for is that there is a law on the books governing Mississippi's open primary, which reads, "No person shall be eligible to participate in any primary election unless he intends to support the nominations made in which he participates.” The letter of this law may be clear enough, but the spirit of the law is a complete hash. Surely it's not unreasonable for the voters who backed the losing nominee of the GOP primary to vote for the winner. And surely it's not unreasonable for a voter in the GOP primary to approach the general election with an open mind and a willingness to allow the Democratic candidate to make a persuasive case. To say otherwise would be to impale the heart of what campaigns and elections are really all about.

Besides, for black voters (and Democratic voters) in Mississippi, the GOP primary is really their only realistic opportunity to have a hand in the eventual results of the election. There hasn't been a Democratic senator in Mississippi since John C. Stennis retired in 1989. And while Democrats have a reasonably capable candidate in the form of former Rep. Travis Childers, he's polling well behind Cochran at this point. Realistically speaking, this primary was the best opportunity Democrats had to alter their state's destiny. (Besides, the better, more strategic way to cast a vote, in the "Operation Chaos" sense, was to ensure that Childers faced the looser cannon, McDaniel.)

McDaniel partisans will talk about how Cochran was an avatar of "big government," of pork, of pandering. But the question they really should be asking themselves is this: Why didn't they do the same thing? Why didn't they attempt to start a conversation with potentially persuadable voters? It's not like black voters in Mississippi are radioactive. It's not like there was some barrier in the way of McDaniel making his own case to those voters. As near as I can tell, the McDaniel camp just saw those voters as irrelevant at best, not deserving of a conversation at worst.

Not to belabor this point, but holy crap, this is what it says right in the bloody "RNC Growth And Opportunity Project" report:

Similar to the approach it must take with other demographic communities, the RNC must embark on a year-round effort to engage with African American voters. The engagement must include not only persuasion based upon our Party’s principles but also a presence within community organizations. There are numerous outside groups that are studying the best way for the Republican Party to better reach African American voters. The Republican Party should leverage the best practices identified by such organizations. Investing time and resources in African American communities by leveraging best practices of organizations like the Texas Federation for Republican Outreach (an affiliate of the Republican Party of Texas) is essential.

The African American community has a lot in common with the Republican Party, and it is important to share this rich history. More importantly, the Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.

Did the McDaniel camp not have Internet access? Do they struggle to read words? The strategy to win the Mississippi primary is right there. What stopped them?

At any rate, now McDaniel and his supporters are left to howl about how they had to pay the price for their unforced errors, whining about how Cochran managed to exploit his history of constituent service and willing engagement with different voting blocs to win the primary. It's an unseemly end to an unseemly primary, but the simple fact of the matter is that the better politician won. And to be honest, it seems to me that the better man won as well.

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