Mississippi GOP congressman wins runoff after courting Democratic votes

BRETT FOR THAD: Former NFL MVP and Southern Miss quarterback Brett Favre appeared in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad supporting U.S. senator Thad Cochran.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran might have won Tuesday’s GOP runoff, but the hangover from the post-victory party could last into the general election in November.

Cochran is a step closer to a seventh term in the U.S. Senate thanks to crossover voters from heavily Democratic Hinds County and the Delta counties in a bruising GOP Senate primary that highlighted the divide between the party’s establishment and the tea party. He defeated State Sen. Chris McDaniel by 6,000 votes, according to unofficial returns.

Cochran will face Democrat and former U.S. congressman Travis Childers in November, barring a challenge from McDaniel.

Cochran openly courted Democratic voters to support him in the runoff, a stance might make his victory Tuesday like the ones enjoyed by Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus over the Romans in 280 BC — especially costly to his hopes in November.

INCUMBENT: U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran faced a heated challenge to maintain his seat.

Kenneth Townsend, assistant political science professor and special assistant to the president at Millsaps College, said he doesn’t think the two factions will be able to smooth over their differences. It might even provide an opening for Democrats to break the GOP stranglehold over the state’s politics.

The governor and three of the state’s four congressmen are Republican and the party owns a majority in both houses of the state Legislature.

“Given how nasty the campaigning has gotten, it’s hard for me to see the establishment GOP and the insurgent GOP patching things up and becoming friends again anytime soon,” Townsend said. “If the establishment Republicans and insurgent Republicans remain two distinct forces, Republican elected officials and Republican candidates will increasingly have to identity which wing of the Republican party they belong to.

“Furthermore, if these two factions in the Republican party remain at loggerheads, it will compromise the strength of the party.”

McDaniel won the June 3 election by 1,418 votes. But in the rematch, Democratic voters crossing over in Mississippi’s open primary system and wins in key GOP strongholds like Rankin and Madison in the Jackson metro were enough to push the 76-year-old Cochran over the finish line.

State of Mississippi photo

CHALLENGER: State Sen. Chris McDaniel lost in his bid to knock off Thad Cochran in the GOP primary.

Despite having the endorsement of a large majority of the state’s GOP elected officials and a higher turnout from counties that went for Barack Obama in 2012, Cochran won only 50.8 percent of the vote. After 319,000 voters cast their ballots June 3, turnout swelled by 12.8 percent, or 41,000 votes, to 360,000 in the runoff.

Despite the loss, McDaniel’s vote totals showed a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. A sitting U.S. senator hasn’t lost a renomination bid in Mississippi since 1942, when Wall Doxey was defeated in the Democratic primary.

Wesley Byrd, an 88-year-old who lit off boilers on the destroyer USS Wadleigh in Admiral Bill Halsey’s Third Fleet during World War II, held a U.S. flag and waved to cars entering a precinct in Brandon. Byrd said he respected the two-term state senator McDaniel and believed change is needed desperately in D.C.

“We’ve got to have people up there who see the problem and want to solve it,” Byrd said. “We’ve got to stop spending. I’ve never seen a person spend themselves rich and that includes the federal government. If we don’t get the taxes, this giveaway stuff, spending and pork barrel crap under control, my great-grandchildren are going to have one huge debt on their shoulders.”

Outside groups spent about $12 million on both candidates, with the biggest push coming from Kiln native, former NFL MVP and Southern Miss quarterback Brett Favre, who called Cochran a “proven and respected leader” in a TV ad from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Favre’s home county, Hancock, was the embodiment of the divide in the state GOP ranks. Not even the former Hancock High football star could lift Cochran to victory in a county heavily dependent on the economic impact of NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

Cheryl Brown, a Cochran supporter from Brandon, said there were many reasons she preferred Cochran, who has been in the Senate since 1978, over McDaniel. She said the grueling campaign has made Cochran a better candidate and man.

“He has a personal touch. He’s one of us. His home is Mississippi,” Brown said. “Politics is a game of give and take and Thad can work across the aisle. The type of clout Thad has does not come easy. He’s helped this state with many projects. We’ve got Keesler Air Force Base on the coast, Ingalls Shipyard and we’ve got Thad to thank for that.”

Contact Steve Wilson at swilson@watchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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