Miss. dead heat sets stage for Senate seat runoff

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 3, 2014 

  • Around the country

    On a day with primary elections in eight states, the marquee race in Mississippi, where six-term GOP Sen. Thad Cochran faced his toughest re-election fight ever, remained too close to call hours after the polls closed. The state’s Republican establishment backed Cochran against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a favorite of the tea party.

    Voters also chose nominees in Alabama, California, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota.

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    MISSISSIPPI TURNING?

    The closing days of the Cochran-McDaniel race were dominated by a controversy involving, of all things, a camera in a nursing home. Four McDaniel supporters were arrested on charges tied to the surreptitious photographing of Cochran’s bedridden wife, who has dementia.

    McDaniel said he knew nothing about it, but Cochran supporters suspected dirty politics.

    Cochran, 76, emphasized the federal money – sometimes called pork – that he has steered to Mississippi for decades. The 41-year-old McDaniel’s critique of the incumbent was that he’s too willing to go along with Democrats in Washington.

    While a McDaniel win would be a rare victory for tea party conservatives this year over a candidate favored by the party’s establishment wing, it’s not likely to affect control of the Senate. The winner of the GOP primary will be the heavy favorite in November against the Democratic nominee, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers.

    The Cochran-McDaniel showdown produced record spending in the relatively small state. Third-party groups spent about $8.4 million, mostly for TV ads.

    That’s on top of $3 million spent by Cochran’s campaign and $1 million from McDaniel’s. The total outlay amounts to $4.13 for each of Mississippi’s 3 million residents, and $6.53 for each of its 1.9 million registered voters. The cost-per-vote figure promises to be much higher, given that primaries usually draw only a fraction of eligible voters.

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    SQUEALING PIGS IN IOWA

    Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement triggered a feisty Republican primary in Iowa, where state Sen. Joni Ernst made national news with a TV ad boasting that she castrated hogs as a farm girl. (She will “cut the pork” in Washington … get it?) Ernst went on to win endorsements from Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and others.

    The goofy nature of the ad doesn’t really reflect Ernst’s personality, but the attention it generated made her the star in a then-muddled field of five. She won the nomination, defeating businessman Mark Jacobs.

    She will face U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, who was unopposed for the Democratic nod.

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    CALIFORNIA'S TOP TWO TAKE ALL

    California holds its primaries under its unusual all-candidates system, in which the top two finishers, regardless of party, face off in November.

    Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown grabbed one spot in the gubernatorial race. Two Republican candidates, former investment banker Neel Kashkari and state legislator Tim Donnelly, were locked in a fight for second place. Donnelly, the more ardently conservative of the two, has compared President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler.

    Seven-term U.S. Rep. Mike Honda is being challenged by fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a patent lawyer backed by several high-tech interests.

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    BIG NAMES, LITTLE SUSPENSE IN SOUTH DAKOTA AND MONTANA

    Republicans see South Dakota and Montana as prime opportunities to take Senate seats from Democrats this year. The showdowns will occur in November, with nominees becoming official on Tuesday.

    Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds won the GOP Senate nomination for the seat being vacated by Democrat Tim Johnson. Businessman Rick Weiland was unopposed as the Democrats’ pick.

    In Montana, then-Lt. Gov. John Walsh was appointed in February to the Senate seat that fellow Democrat Max Baucus left to become ambassador to China. Walsh is trying to win a full six-year term, and will face U.S. Rep. Steve Daines.

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    UP NEXT

    The next primaries are scheduled for June 10 in Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia, with a runoff in Arkansas.

    -Associated Press

— Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel dueled in Mississippi’s U. S. Senate Republican primary Tuesday, trading leads through the night as they struggled to reach the majority needed to avoid a head-to-head runoff.

But with unofficial returns from 98 percent of the state’s precincts, the race pointed toward the likelihood of a June 24 runoff, in the near-draw primary that underscored Republican differences. McDaniel held slightly more than 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race and Cochran with slightly less. It takes a majority by one candidate to avoid a run-off.

The tight race was a much-anticipated end to an epic battle between Cochran, 76, one of Washington’s savviest veteran insiders, and McDaniel, 41, a state senator with strong backing from tea party and national conservative groups.

Their bid to win the GOP nomination outright Tuesday was being hampered by staunch conservative Thomas Carey, who was getting more than 1 percent of the vote. With 97 percent of precincts reporting, McDaniel had 49.6 percent to Cochran’s 48.8 percent while Carey had 1.6 percent.

With McDaniel ahead, it appeared that Cochran’s best hope was to force the runoff.

A June 24 runoff between the two would mean an even more expensive, noisy duel for the vote of the few thousand Mississippi voters who went with Carey. Chances were that many would head to McDaniel’s camp since they rejected the known incumbent, Cochran, on Tuesday.

“Whether it’s tomorrow, or whether it’s three weeks from now, we WILL stand victorious,” McDaniel said via Twitter.

Cochran was not expected to make any statement early Wednesday morning.

After losses in such high-profile GOP primaries as Georgia and Kentucky this year, the push to oust Cochran was seen as the last shot at a major upset of the establishment this year for the tea party movement.

It was challenging a legend.

As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which reviews and decides trillion of dollars in federal funding, Cochran was an old-school pol who reveled in steering federal money to his state.

Constituents fondly remembered him for quickly funneling aid to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina wrecked its coastline nine years ago. He had strong support from the vaunted party organization and is so well-known his campaign bus says “Thad” in big letters; no need to remind people of the senator’s last name.

Prominent state Republicans lined up to praise him. “Mississippians do not need to go far to see the work Sen. Cochran has accomplished for our state,” said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

McDaniel had passion on his side. He hosted energetic rallies and welcomed support from conservative heroes such as Sarah Palin, the party’s 2008 vice presidential candidate, and Rick Santorum, who had strong support among arch-conservatives during his 2012 presidential bid.

McDaniel’s theme on his state bus tour was “Five Promises to Mississippi,” including conservative favorites such as a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution – which has gone nowhere for years.

The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund put McDaniel’s appeal this way: “Unlike his opponent, Chris McDaniel has not been in the Senate since Richard Nixon was president, has not voted for literally tens of trillions of dollars of spending – ‘borrowed' from our children and grandchildren – and has never voted to raise the debt ceiling.”

Cochran, whose 1978 election to the Senate marked the first time since Reconstruction that a Republican had won a statewide Mississippi office, countered with an all-star lineup vouching for his conservative credentials. He is, said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, “the father of the conservative Republican takeover of Mississippi.”

To the tea party, Cochran was an ideal symbol of the kind of politician it wants to dethrone. Tea party enthusiasts toppled a host of incumbents and establishment figures in 2010, a year after the grassroots effort began. That fall, it helped elect dozens of congressional candidates and became a driving force in Republican policy and politics.

The movement, though, also proved to be a spoiler. In at least five states, it helped nominate Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012 with images too extreme to win general elections. In each state, a Democrat won a seat that Republicans had hoped to win.

This year, the Republican establishment was more prepared for the tea party. It adopted some of the movement’s philosophy, notably tough measures to reduce the federal debt and an end to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. It made sure mainstream candidates were well-funded.

First up was North Carolina on May 6, and House Speaker Thom Tillis easily defeated tea party favorite Greg Brannon.

The movement had more success May 13 when Midland University President Ben Sasse won the Nebraska Republican Senate nomination.

But it flunked its next big tests a week later, as tea party candidates were buried in Kentucky and Georgia Senate primaries as well as a pivotal Idaho House of Representatives contest.

Kentucky was a bitter blow. For some time, conservative insurgents had targeted Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, branding him too much of an insider and deal maker. McConnell wound up crushing businessman Matt Bevin in the May 20 primary.

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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