WASHINGTON – Republican Thad Cochran, the genteel Southerner who has represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate for nearly half of his life, battled for his political future against tea party upstart Chris McDaniel in a race that was too close to call late Tuesday.
The conservative state emerged as the most competitive – and brutal – of the primary season, which has largely played out on the Republican side of the aisle as hard-right candidates try to topple establishment favorites. If neither top candidate clears 50 percent, which was possible, the race is headed for a runoff this month.
Republicans are favored to keep the seat in November against Democrat Travis Childers, who easily won his party nomination Tuesday. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats elsewhere to take Senate control from Democrats.
Cochran, who ran his campaign simply as “Thad,” enjoyed good will from the GOP establishment, which wrapped the senator in a cloak of endorsements and warned voters against dumping a senator with so much seniority in Washington.
But the Republican Party has changed dramatically since white-haired 76-year-old Cochran first won office, and he faced an uphill battle against the charismatic McDaniel, a conservative who gave small-government groups their best shot at a win after several high-profile primary season losses.
A state senator who models himself after firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, McDaniel portrayed Cochran’s record of delivering much-needed federal dollars to the impoverished state as a liability in this era of tea party conservatism.
The race became as hardball as it was odd, particularly after supporters of McDaniel were arrested in connection with a blogger who allegedly photographed the senator’s ailing wife in her nursing home.
The episode knocked McDaniel from what had been a growing lead over Cochran and appeared to sour voters on the unusually rough race, strategists said. The Cochran team used the incident in a campaign ad, giving the issue even longer legs.
Neither candidate ran the most sophisticated campaign, providing an opening for the outside groups that poured money into the state as a proxy battle for the future of the GOP. In all, almost $12 million was spent by the candidates and outside groups.