For the past three election cycles (2010, 2012, and 2014), Republican primaries/runoffs have an element of drama to them, as an ongoing tug of war has developed between those allied with “the Establishment” and those who are more sympathetic to party activists and are more TEA Party friendly.
This tension has produced varying levels of electoral success for the Republican Party. On one hand, activist senators like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio have emerged from these primaries, and have made their mark on governmental policy in ways their more centrist opponents would not have. However, these primaries have also produced risky nominees like Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, whose tendency to make inflammatory statements endeared them to primary voters and made them basically “dead on arrival” electorally the instant they were nominated.
A similar dynamic is at play in the Republican US Senate runoff in Mississippi, where the candidate of “the Establishment” is 42 year incumbent Thad Cochran (36 years in the Senate and six years in the House), whose lengthy tenure and position as an appropriator has rankled many rank and file conservatives. He is running against state senator Chris McDaniel, whose TEA Party friendly issue positions place him in the ideological camp of senators like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz.
In the June 3 primary, McDaniel led the field with 49.5% of the vote. He would have won without a runoff, except that a third candidate in the race received 4,854 votes (Senator Cochran received 49% of the GOP primary vote).
Regions of Mississippi
Since the runoff is Tuesday night, how can we independently interpret the results as they are coming in? In this article, we will examine the various regions of Mississippi and how they voted in the primary as a guide for Tuesday’s runoff balloting.
The most important thing to understand is that Mississippi is primarily a rural state: 63% of the primary vote was cast in 17 of the state’s 82 counties. Those 17 counties can be divided up into five regions:
Gulf Coast (18% of the primary vote, 49-47% Cochran): Mississippi’s southernmost counties have seen a continuous influx of outsiders, as well as some suburbanization from New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama. Accordingly, this is a more conservative area, but since it saw catastrophic damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one would expect some sympathy for Senator Cochran, given that he used his (then) position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee to facilitate the flow of federal recovery money to the area. So it was a disappointment to the senator when he only eked out a 49-47% plurality over McDaniel in the primary. This is an area where Cochran must “up his game” in the runoff.
Jackson area (18% of the primary vote, 58-41% Cochran): Mississippi’s capital city has been Senator Cochran’s home for some time: he represented much of the area in Congress from 1973-1979 before his election to the Senate. This can be considered Senator Cochran’s electoral base, although the more middle income (and more TEA Party friendly) suburbs of Rankin County only gave Cochran a 50-49% lead. Still, this is an area that Cochran must roll up a substantial lead if he wants to win the runoff.
Memphis suburbs (5% of the primary vote, 63-36% McDaniel): DeSoto County in northwest Mississippi is a Republican friendly area, but given that its residents have originated from across the state line in Memphis proper (and therefore have a casual connection to the politics of the rest of the state), this is fertile territory for McDaniel, and he has to turn this vote out in the runoff if he wants to win.
Medium sized towns (19% of the primary vote, 57-42% McDaniel): While Mississippi is a rural state, it has several medium sized towns (such as Vicksburg, Meridian, and Hattiesburg) which also contribute to the statewide Republican vote. And each town has its own personality: even though McDaniel overall carried these counties with 57%, Jones County (Laurel) is in his state senate district, and he received 85% of the vote in the primary. Similarly, Forrest and Lamar Counties (Hattiesburg area) are nearby, and also voted for McDaniel. The other small towns voted for Cochran, so it’s in these “other” towns like Columbus (Lowndes County), Meridian (Lauderdale County), Tupelo (Lee County), and Vicksburg (Warren County) where Cochran needs to get his vote out.
“University belt” (3% of the primary vote, 65-34% Cochran): The counties (Lafayette and Oktibbeha) containing the University of Mississippi (also known as “Ole Miss”) and Mississippi State would naturally be more sympathetic towards a candidate who has brought in (or has promised to bring in) federal monies into the area, and they gave Senator Cochran 65% of their votes. Cochran needs a big turnout in these counties.
The remaining 65 counties cast 37% of the primary vote, and can be thought of as either “Delta” or “hill” counties. These counties have substantially different political preferences:
Mississippi Delta (4% of the primary vote, 67-32% Cochran): The Mississippi Delta includes those counties along the western edge of the state between the Mississippi River and I-55 between the DeSoto County suburbs of Memphis in the north and Vicksburg (Warren County) in the south. While these counties have large black majorities and a large number of its residents below the poverty line, the more elite white minority who participates in GOP primaries tends to support “gentlemen” candidates, and Senator Cochran is their kind of candidate. Furthermore, Cochran is “going long” in the area by encouraging the black vote in these counties to do something they rarely would do: participate in the GOP runoff.
“Hill” counties (33% of the primary vote, 52-46% McDaniel): The small rural counties in northeast, central, and southwest Mississippi along the Louisiana border are where McDaniel needs to repeat his respectable primary performance. Since these counties are the most recent addition to Mississippi’s Republican base, they theoretically will determine the state’s GOP nominee, and (most likely) the next Senator.
By understanding the different areas of the state, as the election results come in, those wanting to follow this race can assess Senator Cochran’s chances before the race is called.