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Can the GOP establishment save Thad Cochran?

Incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel are headed to a runoff, a demoralizing development for the GOP establishment.
Thad Cochran
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, greets supporters at a pre-election day rally at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, Miss., on June 2, 2014.

After months of grueling (and expensive) campaigning between incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran and conservative challenger Chris McDaniel, Mississippi Republicans can look forward to another three weeks of grueling -- and, again, expensive -- campaigning after the two candidates appeared to force a runoff on Tuesday with almost all the votes counted.

A runoff is especially bad news for Cochran. Embattled incumbents often fare worse in the second round of voting, when turnout usually drops and the candidate with the most energized grassroots supporters can gain an advantage. Mississippi is considered the tea party movement’s last best chance to defeat a Republican incumbent, and conservative groups are unlikely to hold back in the home stretch after investing so much time, money and energy into the race.

For establishment Republicans, including the state GOP and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the runoff is a demoralizing prospect. Cochran supporters threw everything they had at McDaniel, both out of loyalty to the six-term senator and out of fear that McDaniel could put the race in play in the general election. Now they’re facing the prospect of spending millions of dollars more on an uninspiring candidate in an otherwise safe red state while Republican candidates face competitive races around the country.

The conservative PAC Club For Growth, one of McDaniel’s most prominent backers, called on Cochran Wednesday to “do the honorable thing” and drop out of the race, hoping the sheer shock at McDaniel’s first round lead might give the other side pause. Chris Chocola, the organization’s president, pledged in a statement to “vigorously pursue this race to its conclusion.”

But Cochran’s backers sounded ready for a fight, if weary of the one they tried so hard to leave behind on Tuesday.  

“Looking forward to pushing for [Mississippi’s] interest in US Senate run-off,” Henry Barbour, who helmed the main pro-Cochran super PAC Mississippi Conservatives, tweeted early Wednesday. “The out-of-staters spent about $5M looking out for their interest.”

He predicted a “heavy reload on both sides.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which strongly backed Cochran, also said it would remain in the game.

“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,” NRSC executive director Rob Collins said in a statement.

American Crossroads, a prominent GOP group that has spent money to defeat other tea party upstarts, announced on Wednesday it would sit out the runoff. Crossroads had not spent money on Cochran's campaign, but its decision not to get engaged in the final stretch denies Cochran what would have been both a needed boost and a signal to national donors to take the race seriously. 

The situation isn’t totally hopeless for the establishment. An investigation into an alleged conspiracy by four McDaniel supporters to break into a nursing home and film Cochran’s wife for an attack video is ongoing. While nothing has connected McDaniel or his staff to the incident, it could undermine his campaign if its scope widens or more lurid details emerge. It’s not clear whether the existing story, which Cochran decried in a television ad as “shameful,” played a major role in the first round of voting.

But regardless of who ultimately prevails, party elders will have to contend with the divisions that the contest has wrought in the state.

Cochran supporters all but labeled McDaniel unacceptable – NRSC chairman Sen. Jerry Moran even refused to say last week if the party committee would support him as the nominee. His reluctance recalled the NRSC’s decision to abandon Todd Akin in 2012 (at least publicly) out of fears he would tarnish the entire national brand.

“It’s more than just the usual singular hurt feelings,” state GOP Chairman Joe Nosef told The Clarion Ledger as the results came in. “We have to get a broader range of people brought back into the fold … I do worry about a big swath of the Republican Party labeled as establishment and vilified.”

Democratic officials insist that Rep. Travis Childers, who won the party’s nomination on Tuesday, is well positioned to win over Cochran supporters turned off by McDaniel’s campaign, thanks to his unusually conservative voting record in the House. He has raised little money so far, but fundraising help and support from progressive allies would undoubtedly arrive quickly if the race started to look competitive. McDaniel’s own campaign was propelled by outside groups, who spent millions on television ads supporting his candidacy and bashing Cochran.

The longer term benefit to Democrats might be the damage McDaniel could do in the U.S. Senate as national Republican leaders struggle to court minority and immigrant voters. In addition to his ties to neo-Confederate groups, McDaniel once said on a radio show that he would refuse to pay taxes if the government ever paid reparations to descendants of slaves.