The showdown between Sen. W. Thad Cochran (R.-Miss.) and his Mississippi GOP Tea Party challenger was not resolved in the June 3 primary with neither candidate winning at least 50 percent of the vote.
“What a wonderful night!” said state Sen. Christopher B. McDaniel to a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters at the Hattiesburg Convention Center at 11:30 p.m.
The truth was that it was not really a wonderful night, it was just OK. Of the nearly 300,000 votes cast, the state senator led Cochran by 1,300 votes, but more importantly, holding 49.5 percent of the vote versus Cochran’s 49 percent. In Mississippi, if the primary winner failed to garner more than 50 percent, there is a June 24 runoff between the top two vote getters.
At one point in the long night’s march towards stalemate, McDaniel led Cochran by 10,000 votes and campaign staffers and supporters basked in a back-slappy euphoria. But, as Cochran’s total climbed, insiders griped that Republican establishment was playing games, especially in Hinds County, where votes were reported much later than usual.
Addressing supporters before he dismissed them for the night, the state senator said he decided to enter the race for Senate in October because he felt elected officials were distant from the people and their concerns.
Regular people were ignored, but tonight the people were heard again, he said.
“This is an important moment in the state’s history,” he said.
“Because of your hard work, because of your dedication, we sit here tonight leading a 42-year incumbent,” he said. “Our fight is not over, remember it is about the people and it is still about the people and there are still a handful out there that have not been counted.”
McDaniel said the results would be known in the morning. “I promise you this, whether it is tomorrow or three weeks from tonight: We will stand victorious.”
In past contests between Tea Party candidates and Republican incumbents, the strategy has been to hold the incumbent below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid the runoff, and then make the runoff the actual campaign.
But, in Mississippi, Tea Party activists joined with national conservative groups in an effort to knock Cochran out in the primary. A Human Events/Gravis poll of the race in December showed the two men tied with 40 percent with 20 percent undecided.
Instead of breaking for the challenger, the undecided broke evenly.
Matt Kibbe, the FreedomWorks, the Washington-based support hub for Tea Party organizations, said the nature of the run off gives the advantage to McDaniel and his grassroots organization.
“We’re going to turn out our guys, we’re going to turn up our game,” he said. “Our machine is ready to start tomorrow. They’re going to have to go out and raise more money for TV ads.”
Kibbe said it is no longer possible for Tea Party candidates to sneak up establishment Republicans and score surprise victories. “Thad Cochran and his lobbyist friends are tough opponents. It is difficult to beat an entrenched incumbent—I’m quite impressed by what our activists have accomplished.
Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, said, “It looks like a runoff, so if that happens, we keep standing and fighting for personal freedom, economic freedom and a debt-free future.”
The nomination fight for the Mississippi Senate seat is critical to helping people understand how the Republican leadership does not always support conservative values, she said.
The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund devoted $700,000 in resources and grassroots activities to the McDaniel campaign, including voter contact, ad placement, funding a legal complaint against MS Super PAC with the Federal Election Commission and yard signs, literature and other expense related to mobilizing volunteers.
Martin said she is hopeful. “I think Chris McDaniel is going to win. We are ready for the next three weeks—this is a good night.”
You cannot win all the time, everywhere, she said.
“It is important that we show what our values are and that we make our values heard—but, we also need to win, so that we can have the legislative change that the Tea Party movement cares about,” she said. “We are ready for the runoff.”
Other national conservatives groups, who supported McDaniel, such as the Club for Growth and Conservative Senate Fund, have also signaled they will also commit to help McDaniel in the runoff.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said hoped Cochran would spare the Mississippi Republicans the expense and drama of the runoff.
“Yesterday’s historic vote makes it clear that Mississippians are ready to turn the page to a new generation of bold, conservative leadership. Senator Cochran has served honorably, but the rationale for his candidacy ended yesterday,” he said. “Should he choose to persist, the Club for Growth PAC and conservatives throughout Mississippi will vigorously pursue this race to its conclusion, and we will look forward to the election of Senator Chris McDaniel.”