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HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI – The battle between incumbent Senator Thad Cochran and conservative challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s hard-fought Republican primary on Tuesday is almost certainly headed for a round two runoff. And for the next three weeks, Republicans here will be embroiled in the fight between the Tea Party groups helping to bankroll McDaniel’s campaign and the GOP establishment in the state and in Washington D.C.
McDaniel holds a narrow lead in the very tight contest, but neither candidate appears able to get the 50 percent majority to win outright. That means the two will likely face off in a runoff battle even though Mississippi officials have not yet announced the official results. A little-known third candidate, real estate agent Thomas Carey, collected more than 1 percent of the vote and appears to have denied both of the leading candidates a possible outright victory.
A runoff would turn what was already perhaps the most-closely watched and contested GOP Senate primary in the country into even more of a spectacle ahead of the June 24 runoff. And it will test the resolve of the 76-year-old Cochran, who now faces an energized base of opposition that views him as extremely vulnerable.
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“Whether it’s tomorrow or three weeks from now, we will stand victorious,” McDaniel told a cheering crowd at his campaign’s election night event here, with his two young sons and wife on stage with him.
Key Tea Party groups have already spent more than $5 million in this campaign, but some of their leaders, who attended McDaniel’s election night event, promised they would continue to invest in his campaign if it lasts three more weeks.
“The grassroots has the advantage, we will show up. Runoffs go to the campaign with the most energy,” said FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe, who flew from Washington for the last day of the campaign. FreedomWorks spent more than $300,000 to aid McDaniel.
Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, said the group would still stand with the incumbent.
"Should Mississippi go to a runoff, we will expect a vigorous debate about the future of our country over the next three weeks and we will continue to fully support Thad Cochran. We look forward to him emerging victorious in the runoff," he said.
The runoff, if it occurs, will likely center around the major themes of this race. National Tea Party groups sensed Cochran was weak last year. They coalesced around McDaniel as man who could beat him and provide the latest example of the Tea Party’s ability to defeat entrenched Republican incumbent senators. The ads run by McDaniel and his allies heavily emphasized that Cochran, between his tenure in the House and Senate, has been in Washington for 42 years.
McDaniel, a 41-year-old state senator who says he will model himself after firebrands like Texas’s Ted Cruz if elected to the U.S. Senate, argued Cochran was not the kind of strong conservative that should represent a very-red state like Mississippi. Anti-establishment conservatives like Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum campaigned for him in the closing days of the race.
Cochran’s boosters promoted him as a savvy lawmaker with sway in Washington, who could bring money back to the state, as he did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Establishment Republicans, including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and current Gov. Phil Bryant, as well as the official campaign arm of the Senate Republicans, pushed hard for Cochran. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who himself defeated a Tea Party challenger himself last month, had publicly declared that the establishment wing of the GOP would “crush” candidates like McDaniel.
"The grassroots has the advantage, we will show up. Runoffs go to the campaign with the most energy."
But then, a few weeks ago, this race turned personal. A McDaniel supporter allegedly photographed Cochran’s wife in her nursing home, where she has lived for the last decade because she suffers from dementia. McDaniel has denied any role in the photograph, but Cochran’s campaign attacked him for it.
It was expected the resulting mudslinging between the candidates would reduce turnout, but it instead seems to have heightened it; nearly 300,000 people in this state voted in the GOP contest on Tuesday, more than during the 2012 GOP presidential primary.
Cochran supporters, in the days before the election, argued McDaniel would be a risky candidate to hold onto this Senate seat for Republicans. But either candidate who wins the runoff will be a heavy favorite in the general election. Republicans dominate federal elections here, as the voting population is largely divided between white voters who almost always back GOP candidates and a smaller bloc of blacks aligned with the Democrats.
The last Democrat to win a Senate race here was in 1982.
Former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers easily won Mississippi’s Democratic Party primary and will face the winner of the GOP primary. The former congressman does fit the mold of the kind of Democrat who could win here, having opposed the Affordable Care Act and been a strong critic of the national party.
But it will be hard for Childers to be more conservative than Cochran and McDaniel, who agree on a large set of issues such as opposing immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for people here illegally, the ACA and tax increases.