Sen. Thad Cochran's campaign and supporters have held separate strategy sessions in the state capital and on Capitol Hill to decipher a plan B for the longtime GOP senator, who heads to a runoff against his primary rival, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, in three weeks.
Fundraising will be a key component for both Mississippi campaigns, whose war chests were depleted in the contentious fight that concluded with a near tie on Tuesday . Neither candidate reached the 50 percent threshold to avoid a June 24 runoff.
Beyond that, according to a source with knowledge of the campaign’s deliberations, the Cochran campaign intends to improve the retail side of its strategy in about 25 targeted counties, where — with Tuesday’s election results — it now has a starting point for voter contact.
Another component of the runoff strategy is a pivot on messaging , which will now include specific examples, targeted county-by-county, of how Cochran’s influence in the Senate has affected the daily lives of Mississippians. There will also be a push to alter the framing of the race from grass roots versus the establishment, to out-of-state special interests against Mississippians.
Meanwhile, without consulting with the campaign, the Mississippi community in Washington, D.C., held a meeting Wednesday to kick-start its own grass-roots connections — through family, friends, alumni — to assist with voter communication and fundraising. As one source put it, "people are taking matters into their own hands to activate their own networks.”
By Wednesday afternoon, Cochran supporters were already delivering a revamped message in interviews with reporters. When reached by CQ Roll Call, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a key figure in Cochran world, said the race is absolutely winnable for the senator, despite the conventional wisdom that a lower runoff turnout will help McDaniel.
Barbour said some of McDaniel’s more extreme policy stances flew under the radar late in the race, overshadowed by the scandal involving a pro-McDaniel blogger being arrested for photographing Cochran’s bedridden wife in her nursing home.
“It’s important for Cochran to do a better job on the ground, but also to expand the electorate,” Barbour said. “The public has to remember, the biggest single issue is who will be the most effective for Mississippi in the next six years. That’s not the only message. Part of the message is these outside special interest groups have hijacked the tea party.”
While turnout will undoubtedly be lower, Cochran must improve his showing in key counties where he underperformed, particularly Jackson County on the Gulf Coast — an area of strength for him — which the incumbent actually lost by 300 votes. After finishing behind McDaniel statewide by some 1,400 votes, Cochran must find areas to cut into the 9,200 vote margin McDaniel racked up in his home of Jones County, just north of Hattiesburg. That likely includes looking to increase Cochran's margin in the Jackson-area Madison County and Lafayette County, home of Ole Miss.
Fundraising is crucial. The incumbent personally guaranteed a $150,000 loan to his campaign on May 29, days before the primary. He had $681,000 in cash on hand as May 14, the close of the pre-primary period. McDaniel’s campaign account was even more dry by that point, with $238,000 on hand.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker are expected to play central roles in assisting Cochran’s hurried fundraising. The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent Wednesday developing plans to support Cochran, as it did in the primary, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reiterated its support of Cochran without revealing whether it will spend any more on his behalf.
“We are already fundraising again and hope to play as heavily in the next three weeks as in the last three weeks," said Brian Perry of the pro-Cochran Mississippi Conservatives PAC.
Still, Cochran allies are concerned they will be outspent by pro-McDaniel outside groups such as the Club for Growth, which called for Cochran to drop out of the race on Wednesday. FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund also released supportive statements, indicating they will remain involved.
The McDaniel campaign sent a fundraising solicitation Wednesday to the email list of Conservative Intel asking for “$50 or more today so that we will have the resources to compete these last three weeks.”
In a statement following The Associated Press’ call of the race to a runoff, McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch said: "Chris McDaniel's historic first-place finish on Tuesday is a clear sign of the groundswell of energy behind his campaign to bring a true conservative agenda to Washington, D.C. We look forward to a vigorous debate with Senator Cochran on the issues over the next three weeks.”
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