Thad Cochran Defeats the Tea Party—and So Does Everyone Else

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 25 2014 12:07 AM

Thad Cochran Defeats the Tea Party—and So Does Everyone Else

Sen. Thad Cochran celebrates his narrow victory over Chris McDaniels with supporters at the Mississippi Children's Museum on June 24, 2014. in Jackson.
Sen. Thad Cochran celebrates his narrow victory over Chris McDaniel with supporters at the Mississippi Children's Museum on June 24, 2014, in Jackson.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Reporters: Please adjust your narratives. If your narrative is in the locked position, please apply the Smart Take solution that you have been provided. 

Well, the Great Tea Party Comeback of 2014 lasted no longer than the Great Tea Party Implosion of 2014. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran has narrowly won renomination over challenger Chris McDaniel, in a vanishingly rare case of an incumbent winning a runoff after losing round one of a primary—and in an even rarer case of turnout surging from the primary to the runoff. Oklahoma Senate candidate T.W. Shannon has been defeated by a member of the House GOP leadership. A crew of Tea Party challengers to congressmen have gone down in flames across all time zones.

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Let's recap. In Mississippi, Sen. Thad Cochran succeeded in a well-covered campaign to expand the primary electorate and beat conservative base voters. In June 3's primary, Cochran won only 153,654 votes. On June 24, he won nearly 190,000 votes, outpacing challenger Chris McDaniel, who also upped his overall votes. McDaniel actually won two more counties in this round (Choctaw, Panola) but lost overall.

One reason, one that will be analyzed to death—one that is already causing a small meltdown on conservative Twitter—is that Cochran grew his vote in the Mississippi Delta, the largely black and strongly Democratic northwest of the state. Coahoma County gave Cochran 611 votes in the primary and 1,050 in the runoff. Bolivar County: 1,272 in the primary, 1,877 in the runoff. In Hinds County, which contains the heavily black capital city of Jackson, the Cochran vote surged from 10,928 to 17,927. This, in a race decided by fewer than 8,000 votes. Cochran's camp campaigned for black voters by touting the senator's support for black colleges and food stamps. McDaniel was not pleased.

Anyone whose radio includes Mark Levin's show should turn down the volume tomorrow.

In Oklahoma, Rep. James Lankford flattened former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who ran an "outsider" campaign backed by Sen. Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin. (Cruz staffers whose thumbs joyfully tweeted a #MakeDCListen hashtag when Cochran lost the first round of his race have been quieter tonight.) Shannon closed out the race by attacking Lankford's tentative support of a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. The Chamber of Commerce operatives who mourned the Eric Cantor loss can hold their chins higher now.

In New York, incumbent Rep. Richard Hanna narrowly held on against a Tea Party challenger, and the establishment GOP (as represented by the party, American Crossroads, and the American Action Network) got its preferred candidates in NY-01, NY-04, and NY-21. And in Colorado, where the outcome wasn't as dicey, former Rep. Bob Beauprez held back a comeback bid by gubernatorial hopeful (and former Rep.) Tom Tancredo.

What have we learned? 

The Tea Party's Pollster Got It Right. Really! Tea Party Express, the often-derided consultant-run group that dived early into Mississippi's Senate primary, consistently had Cochran up by less than a point. Less good can be said of McLaughlin & Associates, which blew the Cantor race and wildly overestimated the Hanna vote in New York.

Travis Childers, Your New Joe Hoeffel. This will mean little to people who don't inhale politics too deeply, but three-year northeast Mississippi Rep. Childers hoped to face McDaniel in the fall. He got into this race for the reasons now-Sen. Joe Donnelly got into 2012's Indiana Senate race: a bet that the Tea Party would oust the popular incumbent. Childers ends up in the position former Rep. Joe Hoeffel inhabited in 2004, when he bet on Sen. Arlen Specter losing a primary—which he won by less than 2 points, leaving Hoeffel as a sacrificial lamb in the general.

FreedomWorks, Your New Washington Generals. Every national Tea Party group engaged in Mississippi at some level—this was the race of the year—and all of them walk away wounded. FreedomWorks just looks the worst, having crowed about its grassroots effort in the state and having been left explaining (in a statement) that "if the only way the K Street wing of the GOP establishment can win is by courting Democrats ... then we've already won." Sure, whatever!

Republican Hubris, Your New Republican Despair. Having narrowly bailed out Thad Cochran and avoided disasters in Colorado and New York, "the establishment" is thumping on war drums and predicting victory everywhere. It's certainly possible! But a narrow defeat of Tom Tancredo doesn't auger anything spectacular; a narrow Mississippi victory that's dependent on mobilizing the haters of the Tea Party and lovers of SNAP is not necessarily applicable to turnout models in the swing races. 

And how much was really at stake for the GOP? In Oklahoma, the winner of the Senate primary was always assured to become a senator (Democrats are heading for a runoff between a state senator and a crazy perennial candidate), but the rise of an ambitious thirtysomething black conservative has been halted. In Mississippi, McDaniel was strongly favored over Childers. In New York, had Hanna lost, his Tea Party foe would have been elected by default—no Democrat was running.

The Media Will Not Be Caught Unaware Again. In the runup to election day, the AP, New York Times, Politico, and other outlets ran stories about Cochran's dogged outreach to nontraditional primary voters. The same outlets covered the response of the McDaniel campaign and third-party allies, like the Senate Conservatives Fund—a grassroots campaign to drag out more conservative voters and to challenge possible votes from interlopers. The hairshirt fashion show after Eric Cantor's loss clearly had an impact, though reporters like Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin were on the Mississippi beat for months previous.

All that said—wow, how lousy does Cantor's campaign look? It would be one thing if the majority leader went down in an anti-incumbent wave, but to be the one casualty in a year when other incumbents are able to boot and rally?

Update: The data hounds have found more evidence that black voters showed up and rescued Cochran, who deployed the devious and unexpected trick of "campaigning to black voters by describing what he had done for them." According to The Fix's Philip Bump, turnout surged by around 40 percent (from primary to runoff) in counties that were more than 50 percent black. According to The Upshot's Nate Cohn, it was even higher -- closer to 43 percent -- in counties that were more than 65 percent black.

The reaction on the right has been to call foul play. Here again is the Cochran flier journalist Charles Johnson obtained yesterday:

And at Right Wing News, the sentiment is that the GOP establishment won a "pyhrric victory" by "smearing Tea Partiers as racists." It's not like the state that elected Ted Bilbo (a while ago, fine) is shy of harsh rhetoric, but the harshest attack attribute to Cochran allies -- also obtained by Johnson -- was that Tea Partiers who opposed "the first black president" wanted to elect McDaniel. Yes. That will leave some welts.

Update II: In his concession speech, McDaniel groused that conservatives "took a back seat to liberal Democrats." A back seat. Let's just go easy on the guy and allow the analogy.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.