Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – While a record number of Mississippians turned out for the June 3 Republican primary to vote for either incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran or challenger Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, that doesn’t necessarily mean there was intense interest in the race statewide.
There was in McDaniel’s home county of Jones and many of the surrounding counties that make up the bulk of the Piney Woods area of south Mississippi, and in the Jackson metropolitan area, but not so much in Lee County and Northeast Mississippi.
The campaigns of McDaniel and Cochran are currently studying those election returns while the candidates crisscross the state hoping to maintain their voters and entice new supporters for Tuesday’s runoff.
People who voted in the June 3 first primary and those who did not vote in the Democratic primary are eligible to vote for either Cochran or McDaniel in a race that has not only set a record for Republican primary turnout, but also is one of the costliest in state history and has drawn intense national media interest.
The national interest is generated in part because Cochran is in line to be Appropriations chair should Republicans regain the Senate this November while McDaniel, a second term state senator, is a favorite of the Tea Party branch of the Republican Party.
Those factors and others drew 318,902 people to the polls to vote in the Republican primary – 24,802 more than voted in the 2012 Republican primary for president, which was the previous record for the state.
Still, the interest varied statewide. For instance, in Jones, 13,588 voted on June 3 compared to 8,633 in 2012 and for McDaniel by a whopping 9,578 votes. The counties surrounding or near Jones, such as Forrest, Lamar, Covington, Jasper, Wayne and Smith also saw large upticks in Republican primary voters and all were strong counties for McDaniel, though not as strong as Jones.
Jasper, though, was one of three counties that saw a larger increase in voter participation from 2012 to 2014 than Jones, though all of those counties were much less heavily populated than Jones.
While the Piney Woods voters showed great interest in the race, the same was not true for Northeast Mississippi. In Lee, for example, a county Cochran carried with 56.7 percent of the vote, 10,232 people voted in the 2012 Republican Party primary, compared to 9,083 on June 3.
Similar outcomes could be found throughout Northeast Mississippi, which is an area where Cochran performed better than he did statewide. Oktibbeha and Lafayette were the only two Northeast Mississippi counties where turnout was higher. Oktibbeha is home to Mississippi State University and Lafayette is home to the University of Mississippi – schools that have benefited from Cochran’s influence over the congressional appropriations process through the years. Lafayette also is now where the incumbent calls home.
Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, writing for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, surmised that Lee and perhaps other Northeast Mississippi counties might be areas where Cochran can pick up votes in the runoff.
But the pair cite DeSoto as perhaps ripe for McDaniel gains. McDaniel won DeSoto by more than 1,200 votes, but the county had one of the biggest dropoffs statewide with 2,286 fewer people voting on June 3 than in 2012.
In the runoff, though, the Cochran campaign and supporters have hit McDaniel on comments where he said he opposed federal money being spent on state and local education. Some believe that might hurt McDaniel in DeSoto, which traditionally has had a strong public education electorate.
Turnout increased significantly in the three-county Jackson metro area with Cochran performing well in Madison and Hinds and the pair fighting to a virtual tie in Rankin, which is traditionally the county with the largest turnout in Republican primaries.
In another key area – the Coast – turnout was up with McDaniel doing better than expected since Cochran has been heralded for leading the effort to obtain federal funds for the area after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Cochran campaign has been working especially hard to erase McDaniel’s surprising victory in Jackson County.
The Cochran campaign has spoken of “expanding the electorate,” which seldom occurs in runoffs. There has been evidence that Cochran supporters are hoping to pick up Democratic voters, especially African-Americans who traditionally vote Democratic.
Since eventual Democratic senatorial nominee Travis Childers of Booneville faced only token opposition, only 85,866 people voted in his primary, leaving a lot of Democrats eligible to cross over and vote in the Republican runoff.
Most believe that would help Cochran, who has had more black suppport than most Mississippi Republicans throughout his long tenure.
But state Democratic Party Chair Rickey Cole, who like McDaniel is a Jones County native, questioned that strategy.
“That would be equivalent to having a really tight Democratic primary and one of the candidates looking to members of the Tea Party for help,” he said.
Cole pointed out that there are hundreds of thousands of people who tend to vote for the Republican nominee in the general election who did not participate in the June 3 primary.
For instance, 710,746 Mississippians voted for Republican Mitt Romney for president in the 2012 general election. On June 3, 157,733 voted for McDaniel, 156,315 voted for Cochran and 4,854 voted for the lesser known Thomas Carey of Hernando, forcing the runoff.
That leaves a lot of people who presumably tend to vote Republican, but did not participate on June 3. The only problem is getting the people to the polls, and there’s no way to judge for whom they would vote.
History indicates it will be tough just to get them to the polls. Kondik and Skelley point out in Sabato’s Crystal Ball that in 40 Senate primaries that led to runoffs since 1980 a cumulative 20.7 million people voted in the first primary compared to 13.9 million in the second – a dropoff of 32.6 percent.