For the next three weeks, Mississippi will remain ground zero in the ongoing Republican primary battle between the tea party and the GOP establishment.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, the tea party challenger, holds a razor-thin lead over six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. But McDaniel’s 49.5 percent to 48.9 percent edge, with 99 percent of ballots counted, is just shy of the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a runoff. A third candidate, real estate agent Thomas Carey, played a role in forcing a runoff by capturing more than 1 percent of the vote.
If the tally remains unchanged, Mississippians will have to brace themselves for more campaigning and more advertising until voters return to the polls on June 24.
This hard-fought Republican primary is being watched closely because many believe it represents the tea party’s best chance at unseating a veteran politician during this election cycle. The group has endured mostly defeats this primary season after enjoying several upsets in 2010 and 2012.
McDaniel’s campaign sent an email to supporters on Wednesday morning calling on conservatives from around the country to come to the state to “help us across the finish line.” It is unclear whether a runoff would most benefit McDaniel, 41, or Cochran, 76. McDaniel supporters say the tea party base is energized, but Cochran enjoys the support of top state GOP figures such as Gov. Phil Bryant, Sen. Roger F. Wicker, and former Gov. Haley Barbour.
Barbour best summed up the competing viewpoints during a speech last week at the Republican Leadership Conference when he argued that ideological purity is the “enemy of victory.”
“Being the purest, most conservative loser does not allow America to improve one iota,” he said. “We have to be careful to remember in the mathematics winning is about addition and multiplication. Losing is about division and subtraction. Our party has lost ground in the last few years that we need to get back.”
But McDaniel’s Tea Party backers see vulnerability in Cochran, primarily hitting his long, 42-year tenure in Washington. McDaniel supporters, who include Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, argue that Mississippi is such a strong Republican state that a tea party victory there will not put the seat at risk of falling into the hands of Democrats. That has occurred in other states in recent election cycles. But the last Democrat to win a Senate race in Mississippi did so in 1982. The eventual GOP nominee will face former Rep. Travis Childers who won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday.
McDaniel is vying to become the fourth tea party challenger to beat an incumbent Republican since the birth of the movement in 2009. But this year, sitting lawmakers like Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have won convincing victories over their conservative challengers. In the race for a Senate seat in Georgia, the candidates backed by the establishment survived to face one another in a July runoff while voters vanquished tea party candidates.
McDaniel appeared headed to victory in Mississippi until just a few weeks ago when a bizarre story involving some of his supporters put an unexpected twist on the campaign narrative. Police arrested four McDaniel backers and charged them with illegally filming Cochran’s wife, who is in a nursing home suffering from dementia. McDaniel denied any involvement in the incident and officials have not charged McDaniel or anyone formally tied to his campaign. But coverage of the incident seemed to give the Cochran campaign some momentum heading into Tuesday’s vote.
Still, McDaniel, profiled by WORLD in April, told cheering supporters late Tuesday night he is confident he will win the nomination.
“Whether it’s tomorrow or three weeks from now, we will stand victorious,” McDaniel said with his two sons and wife joining him on stage. When the audience began to chant his name and wave campaign signs in the air, he returned to the podium and quieted them: “We owe everything that happened tonight to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Cochran has travelled the state touting his experience to voters and reminding them of his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has a large say on where federal dollars go.
“With a Republican majority, we will make sure Mississippi has a voice to bring more economic opportunity and growth to our state,” Cochran said Monday at a rally in Jackson, Miss.
The combined amount spent on this primary reached nearly $12.5 million by the times polls opened on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. That includes $8.4 million spent by third-party groups, $3 million by Cochran’s campaign, and $1 million by McDaniel.
Cochran got $500,000 for the race from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the bulk of the outside money went to McDaniel: more than $5 million invested by national tea party groups eager for a victory to show their continued relevance. FreedomWorks spent more than $300,000 for McDaniel while Club for Growth poured in nearly $2.25 million. The Senate Conservatives Fund spent more than $1 million while $650,000 came from the Tea Party Patriots.
“This would be a huge victory across the country for everyone who believes in a limited government,” said Russ Walker, the national political director for FreedomWorks.
McDaniel, in a Wednesday email to supporters, asked for more money for this overtime stretch leading to the runoff.
“I'm going to be brutally honest with you: Our campaign is pretty low on money,” McDaniel said in the email. “Will you help us gather the resources we need to compete these last three weeks?”