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U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
Associated Press/Photo by Rogelio V. Solis
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Cochran nets win for GOP establishment

Elections | Challenger Chris McDaniel refuses to admit defeat and hints at election results challenge

Republican incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi ended Tuesday night with a win over challenger and tea party favorite Chris McDaniel in a tight and bitter runoff race for the GOP nomination. But a defiant McDaniel refused to admit defeat in the race for a U.S. Senate seat.

“There is something a bit strange, there is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” said McDaniel during a speech to supporters Tuesday night during which he did not concede or mention Cochran by name.

Initial analysis of the runoff shows Cochran may have benefitted by reaching out to Democrats and minority voters who did not cast ballots in the initial June 3 primary.

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McDaniel and Cochran ran tough campaigns in the three weeks between that initial primary and Tuesday’s runoff. The candidates remained neck and neck throughout the runoff. But on election day, Cochran pulled ahead with 50.8 percent of the vote to 49.2 percent for McDaniel, with nearly 100 percent of the precincts counted. Democrats may have helped put Cochran over the top in this runoff, but Cochran’s win all but assures Democrats will lose the election in November in this Republican-dominated state.

“We all have a right to be proud of our state tonight,” said Cochran, 76, who was first elected to the Senate in 1978. While Cochran's speech was calm and short, his supporters cheered and chanted “Thad.”

McDaniel joined a growing number of Republicans arguing Cochran won only because he courted the Democratic vote.

“This was a fight that had to happen for the very reasons you saw tonight,” McDaniel said. “Before the race is over, we need to make sure the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”

McDaniel’s words suggest he intends to challenge the election results: “We fought, we had a dream, and the dream is still with us.”

Cochran’s victory could be considered a blow to the tea party’s efforts to take on the Republican establishment. It comes just a couple of weeks after the tea party’s biggest victory, when newcomer David Brat ousted House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia.

During Mississippi’s June 3 primary, political pundits were shocked an unfunded underdog like McDaniel could successfully challenge an established incumbent like Cochran. Judged purely by economics, the race favored Cochran—the incumbent commanded more than $3 million in funds to McDaniel’s $1 million. But McDaniel ran on a platform of term limits and small government, while enlisting the support of conservative figures such as Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.

McDaniel won on June 3, but his 49.5 percent fell just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid Tuesday night’s runoff.

The primary race has been mired in controversy. The mudslinging started during the aggressive campaign in May when police arrested a pro-McDaniel blogger. Authorities accused the blogger of illegally filming Cochran’s wife, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home. McDaniel denied any involvement in the action.

The controversies only heated up during the last three weeks leading to the runoff. Police arrested a Cochran staffer late Sunday, accusing him of destroying McDaniel signs. Cochran’s campaign fired the man. McDaniel staffers trying to help out with vote counting during the initial primary got locked inside the Hinds County Courthouse, raising allegations of vote tampering.

On Monday, McDaniel raised an Internet firestorm after quoting part of a Facebook note from Cochran’s daughter. Kate Cochran criticized McDaniel for his lack of leadership, saying he relied solely on “Jesus, the Constitution, and common sense.” In a Facebook response, McDaniel wrote that he does indeed rely on those three things. “#ThankyouKate,” he added at the end of his post.

Conservatives who support McDaniel are both angry about the outcome and excited for the future. Ken Cuccinelli, president of the McDaniel-supporting Senate Conservatives Fund, wrote he is “disappointed” Cochran courted Democratic votes: “Conservatives must continue to challenge career politicians who abandon their party’s principles and side with the Democrats in supporting more spending and debt.”

Russ Walker, the national political director for FreedomWorks for America, also endorsed McDaniel. He thinks the fact McDaniel did so well presents a warning to mainline GOP congressmen. “The ball is moving to the right,” Walker said. “These kind of challenges have the benefit of actually changing policy.”

Turnout for the runoff ran 16 percent higher than in the initial June 3 primary. In the runoff, Cochran benefitted from a well-financed ground game, plenty of television commercials, and outside establishment figures like Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. But the key to his apparent victory seems to be his ability to bring African-American Democratic voters to the polls for the Republican primary. County-by-county data in Mississippi shows minority voter turnout increased between the June 3 primary and the June 24 runoff.For example, in Jefferson County, where African-Americans represent the largest share of registered voters, turnout increased by 92 percent for the runoff.

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