Opinion

The real lesson in Thad Cochran's big win

Adapt, and you can overcome

Thad Cochran survived.

Last night, the six-term Republican senator from Mississippi narrowly defeated a Tea Party-backed challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a GOP primary runoff, advancing to a cakewalk general election in this very red state, and presumably, a seventh term in the Senate.

The instant conventional wisdom on the lesson here goes something like this: This race was a critical win for mainstream Republicans, and a blow to the Tea Party. But there's more to it than that.

For starters, McDaniel probably could have won the original primary outright, and not been forced into this run-off, had he run a better campaign the first time around, and had his supporters been more responsible (for example, had a McDaniel supporter not sneaked into the nursing home of Thad Cochran's wife). So interpreting Tuesday's outcome as a death knell for the Tea Party is problematic. A couple smarter moves a couple months ago, and Mississippi could have been a Tea Party triumph for McDaniel.

Here's another key takeaway: History is only a good predictor of outcomes until it isn't.

History tells us that if an incumbent can't get above 50 percent of the vote in a primary, he's toast in a run-off. This is true for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that run-offs usually have even lower turnout than primaries, and the people typically motivated to show up are the hardcore insurgents who would crawl through broken glass for the challenger.

Well, the lessons of history are true until they aren't. They said it was unlikely that three consecutive presidents would get two terms — especially when the public is so distrustful of institutions — and yet Obama got his. They said Virginia always elects a governor of the opposite party of the president, until Terry McAuliffe was elected on the heels of Obama's re-election. They said that a majority leader hadn't lost a primary since the 1890s...until it happened to Eric Cantor. And so on.

Here's another thing — and perhaps the biggest thing — we can all learn from Thad Cochran's campaign: Adapt, and you will overcome. The primary election was clearly a wake-up call for someone — be it the NRSC, Haley Barbour, or other GOP operatives — to intervene and right the Cochran ship. They became desperate, and came up with a new strategy. Essentially, they conceded that if the election were about who can be the most conservative, Cochran couldn't beat McDaniel. So rather than playing a losing hand, they changed the game. Cochran appealed to African Americans and other Democratic base voters — who can vote in GOP races in Mississippi's open primary system, and who would prefer to be represented by the relatively pro-government Cochran than by the anti-government McDaniel. Basically, Cochran's plan B was to woo Democrats. And it worked. (I realize this was a unique case, but what if Republicans always hustled this hard to win over African American voters...)

McDaniel had the support of a lot of national outside groups, a fact that Cochran's team may have used to motivate Democrats, who —let's face it — rarely have an opportunity like this to cast a statewide vote of consequence in Mississippi. And when it was reported that the Senate Conservatives Fund would deploy poll watchers to Mississippi, ostensibly to challenge ineligible Democratic voters, some observers felt the optics (considering the run-off coincided with the 50th anniversary of "Freedom Summer") weren't so hot for conservatives. It may be impossible to know if this motivated some African Americans to come out and vote, but would you be surprised if it did?

Regardless of the details, here's the big lesson, so effectively illustrated by Team Cochran: Adaptability is a hugely important skill. If you can adapt to changing circumstances on the ground — and do so rapidly — you can win. That's exactly what Team Cochran did when they basically reinvented their political strategy for winning the race, defying conventional wisdom, and turning a run-off election into a general election. You can hate Cochran, but still admire this gutsy maneuver.

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