In what would be a major victory for the national tea party movement, conservative state senator Chris McDaniel leads six-term Senator Thad Cochran by a hair in Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary early Wednesday morning. Hours after polls closed, it is still too close to call. Both campaigns are watching anxiously to see if McDaniel crosses the 50% threshold to avoid a June 24 runoff.
With 99.5% of the vote in, McDaniel leads Cochran 49.6% to 48.9%, with minor candidate Thomas Carey taking 1.6% of the vote. McDaniel would be considered the favorite in a runoff, which tend to benefit candidates with motivated supporters who can make up for what is usually a steep drop-off in turnout.
McDaniel inspired tea party groups around the country, who saw him as their last best chance to defeat an incumbent Republican senator in 2014 and strike a blow against a GOP establishment that has grown increasingly active in defending its favored candidates.
McDaniel’s campaign faced a difficult May after four pro-McDaniel activists, including a prominent tea party leader and a former co-host of McDaniel’s radio show, were arrested in an alleged plot to break into a nursing home to film Cochran’s wife for an attack video. Cochran’s campaign quickly produced ads highlighting the scandal, but an investigation has yet to produce any links to McDaniel or his campaign, which condemned the incident.
Cochran is exactly the type of Republican senator the tea party loves to hate. He’s been in Washington for more than four decades, has won support at home by using his seniority to dole out federal dollars, and has shunned the theatrics of rising conservative stars like fellow Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Groups like Club For Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund flooded the state with money in hopes of unseating him. Outside groups spent over $5.2 million on behalf of McDaniel, whose own campaign raised only about $1.2 million.
While other veteran politicians targeted by the tea party in 2014 – Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham in particular – responded with feisty campaigns they had prepared years in advance, Cochran responded listlessly to the gathering threat. Two national reporters who followed Cochran in the final stretch wrote that he even appeared confused at times – The Atlantic’s Molly Ball found that Cochran didn’t recognize her only a half-hour after their interview. Slate’s Dave Weigel noted that Cochran seemed to misunderstand his and other reporters’ questions, an issue that caused a last-second gaffe when Cochran appeared to praise Obamacare in an interview (his campaign clarified that he thought he was asked about the VA).
Cochran’s campaign may have been uninspiring, but to establishment Republicans, his opponent was a dangerously combustible alternative. Critics accused McDaniel of flirting with neo-Confederate and white supremacist activists and questioned whether he might even put the ultra-conservative state into play for Democrats. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and a new super PAC run by Republican National committeeman Henry Barbour spent over $2.7 million on the race, most of it attacking McDaniel.
Pro-Cochran Republicans and national Democratic strategists have argued that McDaniel could put the state in play in the general election. Democratic nominee Rep. Travis Childers has raised little money in the race – just $51,000 as of March 31 – but is relatively conservative on social issues and voted against the Affordable Care Act. It may be difficult for state and national GOP officials who bitterly opposed McDaniel to lend him significant support, but they’ll face enormous pressure from conservative activists to fall in line.
In a far less divisive primary, Iowa state senator Joni Ernst secured the GOP Senate nomination for the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin by soundly defeating Republican businessman Mark Jacobs. Ernst’s campaign gathered momentum throughout the race, earning her endorsements from tea party and establishment groups alike.