WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel dueled in Mississippis 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 states 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 Washingtons 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 Cochrans 48.8 percent while Carey had 1.6 percent.
With McDaniel ahead, it appeared that Cochrans 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 McDaniels camp since they rejected the known incumbent, Cochran, on Tuesday.
Whether its tomorrow, or whether its 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 senators 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 partys 2008 vice presidential candidate, and Rick Santorum, who had strong support among arch-conservatives during his 2012 presidential bid.
McDaniels 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 McDaniels 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 movements 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.