By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – If six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran believes his path to victory in the June 24 runoff election with Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel is increasing voter turnout, as some have suggested, he has his work cut out for him.
“I think we can increase the electorate,” former Gov. Haley Barbour was quoted as saying in a national publication. Barbour has formed a political action committee to advocate for Cochran.
A study of recent statewide and districtwide party primary runoff elections in Mississippi could find none where more people voted in the runoff than in the first primary. In some instances, the dropoff was dramatic while in a few it was minimal.
What occurred a few times is an individual candidate – normally the winning candidate – garnered more votes in the runoff than in the first primary. But when that occurred it was normally in campaigns that featured a host of candidates.
In Tuesday’s Senate primary, McDaniel, a second-term state senator from Jones County, defeated Cochran by about 1,400 votes. But a third candidate in the race, little-known Thomas Carey, a Hernando real estate agent, garnered less than 2 percent of the vote, but enough to prevent McDaniel or Cochran from receiving the majority needed to avoid a runoff and advance to the general election against Democrat Travis Childers of Booneville.
Cochran supporters say they are optimistic because:
• Many people felt confident the incumbent who has not faced serious opposition since 1984 was not in any danger and so perhaps they did not vote.
• Many Mississippians finally will decide Cochran is too valuable to lose because he is in line to chair Appropriations should Republicans capture the Senate.
Barbour even surmised that some voters mistakenly cast ballots for Carey when they meant to vote for Cochran.
Roughly 313,500 people voted in the Republican primary Tuesday, according to unofficial results tabulated by The Associated Press. The party is supposed to compile final, certified results with the Secretary of State’s office next week.
While the turnout falls far short of the more than 1 million who voted in past general elections or even the 700,000 or more who voted in past Democratic primaries in the party’s heyday in the state, it still represents a record turnout for Mississippi Republicans.
The past highest total for a Republican primary was the 294,100 who voted in the 2012 presidential primary followed by the 289,788 who voted in the 2011 gubernatorial primary.
In recent years, the Republican Party primaries have seen steady increases in participation as the party gained a larger foothold in the state.
But considering that the 2014 primary was in an off year with no presidential or gubernatorial candidates on the ballot, by those terms, the turnout was not unimpressive.
Still, Cochran supporters say they will be looking everywhere, including to Democrats, to increase the incumbent senator’s support.
The McDaniel campaign has expressed dismay that Cochran would be courting Democrats to cross over.
“We are calling on conservatives all across Mississippi and America to help us raise the money we need to win and tell Thad Cochran that we don’t need help from Democrats to decide who should be the Republican nominee for United States Senate,” McDaniel wrote in an email to his supporters.
Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell said, “I think people have another three weeks to sit back and say, ‘is Chris McDaniel the kind of person we want representing our state.’”
If Cochran does expand the electorate he will be bucking trends in Mississippi, where runoff elections have been common through the years. In the last runoff, for example, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Clarksdale businessman and now mayor Bill Luckett battled for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2011. In the first primary, 412,530 people voted, compared to 323,284 in the second. DuPree, who won the runoff, garnered about 2,000 votes less in the second election while Luckett saw his totals drop by about 14,000.
In the same year, Lynn Fitch and Lee Yancey advanced to a runoff for the post of treasurer on the Republican side. The vote total dropped from 276,994 in the first primary to 156,006 in the runoff and both candidates saw their totals drop by more than 20,000 in an election won by Fitch.
The results of runoffs for treasurer on both the Democratic and Republican sides were similar in 2003.
But those elections were state elections where there were local contests, such as for sheriff and supervisor, on the ballot, influencing the outcome.
A better barometer might be runoffs in U.S. House and Senate elections.
In 2008 in the 1st District House race, which includes much of Northeast Mississippi, there were runoffs on both the Democratic and Republican sides. On the Republican side, the vote total dropped from 44,429 to 33,353 and the winner, then-Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, actually gained about 600 votes while the loser, former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough lost about 1,000 votes in the runoff.
On the Democratic side, the turnout dropped from 98,825 to 36,376, but that was an unusual election because state Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville who advanced to the runoff, was telling people to vote for his opponent, Childers.
There was one U.S. Senate runoff in recent times. In 1994 on the Democratic side, 134,844 voted in the first primary compared to 77,465 who voted in the runoff where Ken Harper of Vicksburg defeated Hiram Eastland. Both saw their vote totals drop in the runoff, Harper by more than 13,000 votes and Eastland by more than 10,000.
As far as what regions of the state Cochran and McDaniel will look for votes, the contest was close in most counties, as was the statewide outcome, with a few notable exceptions. McDaniel garnered huge advantages in his home county of Jones where he defeated Cochran 11,025 to 1,816. He also did well in the counties surrounding Jones and in DeSoto in the Memphis suburbs.
Cochran did well in Hinds, the Delta and his home county of Lafayette, but nowhere did the incumbent enjoy the margin of victory that McDaniel did in Jones.
Cochran did reasonably well throughout Northeast Mississippi, winning all of the region except Tishomingo, Marshall, Itawamba and Benton.
Cochran won Lee by the healthy margin of 5,111 to 3,800.