By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Upstart state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville holds an ever-so-slight slight lead over six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi’s Republican senatorial primary, but it appeared likely the two candidates would be forced into a runoff by a little-known third candidate in the race.
To win the nomination, a candidate must garner a majority of the vote. With 99.5 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, McDaniel, a second-term state senator and Tea Party favorite, had 49.6 percent of the vote to Cochran’s 48.9 percent in one of the closest major statewide races in history.
If neither candidate reaches the majority threshold, McDaniel and Cochran, who has never received less than 60 percent of the vote in his five re-election efforts, will meet in a June 24 runoff in what has been a bruising Republican primary.
The Republican nominee will face Democrat Travis Childers, the former 1st District congressman, who easily disposed of three lesser-known candidates in his party primary Tuesday, in the November general election.
With 1,823 of 1,832 percents reporting, McDaniel had 151,842 votes, or 49.57 percent, to Cochran’s 149,714, or 48.88 percent. Hernando real estate agent Thomas Casey garnered just enough votes – 4,749, or 1.55 percent – to place the outcome in doubt.
Speaking from his after-election party in Hattiesburg late Tuesday, a confident McDaniel said, “Whether it is tomorrow or three weeks from tonight, I promise you this, we will be victorious in this race.”
Cochran did not speak Tuesday night, but from the Cochran after-election party in Jackson, U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper of the 3rd District predicted there would be a runoff in the Senate race, but said, “When it comes to the future of our state, Thad Cochran is the future.”
The race has drawn national attention because it was viewed as perhaps the Tea Party’s best chance of pulling off a victory against a Republican establishment candidate in Cochran, who through the years has brought home a disproportionate share of federal dollars to Mississippi while being known for his civility and even-keeled personality.
But there has been nothing civil about the McDaniel-Cochran feud, which at times has been downright personal in nature.
Democratic nominee Childers had 61,702 votes, or 74.1 percent, while Bill Marcy of Vicksburg had 10,002, or 12 percent; William Compton of Meridian, 8,145, or 9.8 percent; and Jonathan Rawl of Oxford, 3,408, or 4.1 percent, with 1,823 of 1,832 precincts reporting.
“I am grateful and humbled by the wonderful vote we got,” Childers said late Tuesday night. “We are going to go forward continuing to talk about Mississippi families and how to help them and to talk about Mississippi not being forgotten. I am willing to work with anybody who has a good idea regardless of who it is.”
Childers did limited radio advertising and met with key Democratic constituent groups before Tuesday’s primary. That was in sharp contrast to the Republican brawl where an estimated $12 million spent by the candidates and outside groups.
Spending from national Tea Party-related groups in support of McDaniel or in opposition to the incumbent at least partially offset the substantial advantage Cochran had in head-to-head fundraising against McDaniel.
The Cochran campaign was critical of McDaniel for his reliance on out-of-state groups and to a large extent out-of-state politicians with close ties to the Tea Party, such as former vice presidential candidate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Cochran had the support the state’s Republican establishment, including Gov. Phil Bryant and other statewide Republican elected officials, many of whom campaigned with him during the final days of the brutal race.
The Cochran campaign portrayed the 42-year-old McDaniel as a potential embarrassment for the state on the national level and claimed his actual votes in the Senate did not match his often over-the-top conservative rhetoric.
The McDaniel campaign chided Cochran as a Washington big spender, though others praised him for his ability to garner funds for the state, particularly to help rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In the end, McDaniel’s advantage came primarily from strong showings in his home county of Jones, where he had a 9,200-vote margin while leading Cochran by only about 2,500 votes statewide, and other south Mississippi counties, along with a strong showing in Republican-vote rich DeSoto County. Plus, McDaniel did surprisingly well on the Gulf Coast despite Cochran’s ability to garner federal funds for the area after the devastation of Katrina.
Cochran carried Lee County comfortably and won a majority of Northeast Mississippi counties.
The race was contentious and bordered on personal from almost the beginning. But in the final two weeks the campaign took contentiousness to another level.
On Easter Sunday, a supporter of McDaniel allegedly entered a Madison County retirement community and took pictures of Cochran’s wife, Rose, who is bed-ridden and suffering from advanced stages of dementia.
The photo was part of a video designed to allege that Cochran is seeing another woman while his wife is confined to a nursing home. It was posted briefly on the Internet. Four people, all apparently supporters of McDaniel, have been arrested in connection with the incident.
Cochran’s staff quickly jumped on inconsistent statements made by McDaniel and his campaign to imply he was involved in the episode, though no one on the McDaniel campaign has been accused of any wrongdoing.
The episode brought renewed national attention to a race that already was receiving interest outside of Mississippi because of the Tea Party versus establishment angle. Cochran is in line to serve as Appropriations chair should the Republicans garner control of the Senate in November.
Cochran, a Pontotoc County native, was first elected to the U.S. House in 1972, representing the Jackson area and southwest Mississippi. In 1978 he won with a plurality of the vote the Senate seat left open by the retirement of longtime incumbent Jim Eastland. In 1984, he won re-election with about 60 percent of the vote against former Gov. William Winter.
After that, the congenial Cochran never faced a serious challenge – until this election.