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Winning strategy likely to stay in Mississippi

By Jeremy Diamond, CNN
updated 7:25 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
  • Runoff turnout shot up in counties with the highest African-American populations
  • "This is how you grow the party," head of a pro-Cochran super PAC said
  • Several GOP strategists said Cochran's coalition was unique to Mississippi
  • Democrats targeting minority communities hoping to increase midterm turnout

Washington (CNN) -- An unlikely group helped Sen. Thad Cochran capture the Republican nomination in a hotly contested primary runoff, but the strategy that propelled him to victory is unlikely to make it into the GOP playbook.

In the final weeks of the election, Cochran's campaign and allies turned to African-Americans and Democrats to carry the incumbent senator past his tea party challenger.

Turnout shot up in counties with the highest African-American populations, but Cochran's success with turning out an unlikely demographic will be hard to replicate elsewhere, several Republican strategists said.

CNN political commentator and Republican strategist Kevin Madden emphasized that each election should be treated as an independent race with its own strategy.

"I think it would be hard to say this is a sign of something that could be replicated in congressional districts or in races around the country," Madden, a former adviser to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said.

A unique scenario played out in Mississippi: Because of the state's open primary system, Democrats were able to help elect the Republican nominee, who is all but certain to win the general election in the solidly Republican state.

The contentious race between an incumbent with a pipeline to federal funds and a more conservative challenger with tea party backing jolted blacks into action -- 88% of whom voted for the Democratic nominee in the state's last Senate race in 2012, according to CNN exit polls.

Lifelong Democrats mobilized for Cochran

States in which the same scenario could play out "are few and far between," GOP strategist and CNN political commentator Alex Castellanos said. "Until we find such a rare state, it will do a Republican no good to promise more federal spending and benefits to minority voters."

Bringing home the pork

Throughout the campaign, Cochran consistently pointed out his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the multimillion-dollar projects he has funded in Mississippi, some of which bear his name, like the University of Southern Mississippi's Thad Cochran Center.

Jackson, Mississippi, also boasts the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center -- a formerly run-down mall that an African-American doctor converted into a medical center with Cochran's support, said D'Andra Orey, political science professor at Jackson State University.

"He's done some things that are not black-specific, but things that blacks benefit from," Orey said.

Many credited Cochran's success at the ballot box to his ability to funnel federal dollars into his state -- the poorest in the country.

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Henry Barbour, who steered the pro-Cochran super PAC Mississippi Conservatives, said that Cochran's long-standing relationships with the African-American community and ability to meet "the needs of all the Mississippians" helped Cochran win.

"It only worked because they had confidence in Sen. Cochran, whether it was a Republican voter we were talking to, an independent voter we were talking to, or even a Democratic voter," Barbour acknowledged.

But still, Barbour said he does not "think there's any question" that the strategy can be applied on a national level.

"We've got to genuinely go into the minority communities and communicate our message and explain to them why it's good for them," Barbour said.

Barbour called the election an impressive feat given the state's violent history of race relations.

Turnout spiked in Hinds County, which is 70% African-American and saw about 7,000 more voters for Cochran in the runoff than in the primary.

While boasting a similar share of Cochran supporters, neighboring Madison County -- which is 38% African-American -- delivered much smaller gains for Cochran in the runoff.

George Flaggs Jr., the mayor of Vicksburg, backed Cochran and encouraged other Democrats to support him at the polls, largely because his city's economy is anchored in government-funded projects.

"(Sen. Cochran) is a person that demonstrates leadership in terms of helping with jobs and job creation," Flaggs said. "I'm a black Democrat, but I try to be responsive to the needs of the city and the state."

He added that Mississippi would be unable to compete for federal funds with states like New York or California without Cochran's seniority in the Senate.

Barbour said he was "damned proud" to ask African-Americans and Democrats for their support.

"One of the highlights of the runoff was working with African-Americans in a shared interest in our state," Barbour said. "This is how you grow the party."

Conservative activists slam Cochran for courting Democrats

Is the African-American vote up for grabs?'s Crystal Wright said the Mississippi race showed that neither party should take the black vote for granted.

"We don't go out and earn the black vote," Wright said of the GOP. "The only time the Republican Party is serious about going after the black vote is -- it's like the vote of last resort. Blacks have become the vote of last resort and we need to say no more."

Republicans could actually make inroads with African-Americans in the rural and suburban communities of the South, said Ravi K. Perry, a political science professor at Mississippi State University.

Perry, who has written extensively about race in politics, said Cochran's outreach to blacks is "obviously a winning strategy" and that the runoff showed that there is interest in the African-American community to have an impact on the political process.

"It's not going to be a strategy that you're going to throw away," Perry said.

He added that many African-Americans are socially conservative and may find Republican candidates appealing, particularly if they can bring home federal dollars for the agriculture industry, which relies on subsidies.

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"Democrats should not rest on their laurels and assume that the African-American vote is theirs and the GOP should not assume that it is out of their reach," Perry said.

Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator Donna Brazile dispelled the idea that Democrats take the African-American vote for granted and said that Democrats are working to recruit and turn out more every election cycle.

"The only legitimate criticism ... is that we wait until the last minute to encourage African-Americans to vote," Brazile said. "But when it comes to encouraging African-Americans to run for office, we're at the table."

But Brazile said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is making an "aggressive effort" to recruit and register African-Americans and other minorities in key states this cycle

DSCC National Press Secretary Justin Barasky said the group is already spending to raise turnout in battleground states to near-2012 levels and will be "making an unprecedented investment" to keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

Registering and turning out African-Americans will be a key part of this strategy, particularly in Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana, Barasky said.

Forming a more inclusive party

Danny Vargas, former chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, was wary to draw any broader conclusions from the unique Mississippi runoff, but said the race is a reminder the GOP needs to cast a wider net.

"Nationally, if we ever hope to win back the White House, we need to have an approach that's inclusive of every segment of society," Vargas, who is also president of VARCom Solutions, said. "The poor of our country are not the problem, they're the ones most in need of our solutions."

Vargas suggested the GOP should show how its market-oriented solutions can empower all types of communities.

"You just need to show up. You need to be willing to go to Hispanic bodegas, black churches or mosques," he said.

Beyond African-Americans, Republicans will also need to draw Hispanic voters to remain a viable party as that population is projected to triple by 2050.

John Bruce, chair of the University of Mississippi's political science department, called the runoff an "exceptional" case and said no one should expect any significant shifts in racial partisanship.

But Cochran's strategy of courting the African-American vote proved successful -- whether because of his record of funding projects in Mississippi or the fear of being represented by someone like McDaniel.

"Anytime something works in politics, someone else will try to copy it," Bruce said.

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