WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel braced Wednesday for a June 24 runoff in Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary, as both were falling just short of the majority needed to win.
With 99.5 percent of precincts reporting, McDaniel had 49.6 percent to Cochran’s 48.6 percent.
The tight race was a much-anticipated end to an epic battle between Cochran, 76, one of Washington’s savviest veteran insiders, and McDaniel, 41, a state senator with strong backing from tea party and national conservative groups.
Wednesday, their supporters quickly dug in.
“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,” said Rob Collins, National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director.
McDaniel’s tea party backers were just as adamant. "Obviously, total victory was the preferred outcome, but what a showing by Chris McDaniel,” said Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund Chairman Jenny Beth Martin. “He was written off by the media and attacked by the Establishment, yet here he stands on the cusp of making history. With all this momentum, I like his chances in three weeks.”
A June 24 runoff between the two would mean an even more expensive, noisy duel for the vote of the few thousand Mississippi voters who went with Carey. Chances were that many would head to McDaniel’s camp since they rejected the known incumbent, Cochran, on Tuesday.
“Whether it’s tomorrow, or whether it’s three weeks from now, we WILL stand victorious,” McDaniel said via Twitter.
Cochran was not expected to make any statement early Wednesday morning.
A McDaniel win could be a much-needed boost for the staggering tea party. After losses in such high-profile GOP primaries as Georgia and Kentucky this year, the tea party push to oust Cochran was seen as the last shot at a major upset of the establishment this year for the grassroots movement.
McDaniel was challenging a legend.
As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which reviews and decides trillion of dollars in federal funding, Cochran was an old-school pol who reveled in steering federal money to his state.
Constituents fondly remembered him for quickly funneling aid to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina wrecked its coastline nine years ago. He had strong support from the vaunted party organization and is so well-known his campaign bus says “Thad” in big letters; no need to remind people of the senator’s last name.
Prominent state Republicans lined up to praise him. “Mississippians do not need to go far to see the work Sen. Cochran has accomplished for our state,” said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.
McDaniel had passion on his side. He hosted energetic rallies and welcomed support from conservative heroes such as Sarah Palin, the party’s 2008 vice presidential candidate, and Rick Santorum, who had strong support among arch-conservatives during his 2012 presidential bid.
McDaniel’s theme on his state bus tour was “Five Promises to Mississippi,” including conservative favorites such as a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution _ which has gone nowhere for years.
The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund put McDaniel’s appeal this way: “Unlike his opponent, Chris McDaniel has not been in the Senate since Richard Nixon was president, has not voted for literally tens of trillions of dollars of spending – ‘borrowed’ from our children and grandchildren – and has never voted to raise the debt ceiling.”
Cochran, whose 1978 election to the Senate marked the first time since Reconstruction that a Republican had won a statewide Mississippi office, countered with an all-star lineup vouching for his conservative credentials. He is, said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, “the father of the conservative Republican takeover of Mississippi.”
To the tea party, Cochran was an ideal symbol of the kind of politician it wants to dethrone. Tea party enthusiasts toppled a host of incumbents and establishment figures in 2010, a year after the grassroots effort began. That fall, it helped elect dozens of congressional candidates and became a driving force in Republican policy and politics.
The movement, though, also proved to be a spoiler. In at least five states, it helped nominate Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012 with images too extreme to win general elections. In each state, a Democrat won a seat that Republicans had hoped to win.
This year, the Republican establishment was more prepared for the tea party. It adopted some of the movement’s philosophy, notably tough measures to reduce the federal debt and an end to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. It made sure mainstream candidates were well-funded.
First up was North Carolina May 6, and House Speaker Thom Tillis easily defeated tea party favorite Greg Brannon.
The movement had more success May 13 when Midland University President Ben Sasse won the Nebraska Republican Senate nomination.
But it flunked its next big tests a week later, as tea party candidates were buried in Kentucky and Georgia Senate primaries as well as a pivotal Idaho House of Representatives contest.
Kentucky was a bitter blow. For some time, conservative insurgents had targeted Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, branding him too much of an insider and deal maker. McConnell wound up crushing businessman Matt Bevin in the May 20 primary.