In Mississippi, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran looks to serve another day and the tea party’s hopes of reversing its misfortunes this election cycle have been dashed.
The 76-year-old Cochran edged out his tea party-backed competitor, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, 51 percent to 49 percent in a runoff Tuesday night, proving that voters may still value lawmakers who funnel pork back home.
Cochran had waged a more aggressive campaign after coming in second in the June 3 primary, but the senator still kept his remarks brief on the trail. Cochran’s small margin of victory was due mostly to two factors: a higher turnout among the electorate overall and a surge in the African-American vote.
In the Mississippi delta, turnout increased by thousands of votes as many blacks, many of whom traditionally vote for Democrats, came out to support Cochran. (Under state law, anyone could vote in the primary, unless they had cast ballots in the Democratic primary on June 3.)
Their support could ensure Cochran beats his Democratic opponent, former Rep. Travis Childers, in the general election in November.
Cochran’s late surge, however, may be overshadowed by McDaniel’s reluctance to back down. During his election night speech, McDaniel did not concede, but left the door open to go after the results in court. He openly questioned the legitimacy of the vote tally from the stump and decried the fact that some Democrats had come out to vote in the GOP’s runoff.
“There were dozens of irregularities reported across this state,” McDaniel said during his speech Tuesday night. “Now, it is our job to make sure that the sanctity of the vote is upheld. Before this race ends, we have to be absolutely sure that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”
The soft-spoken Cochran, who was nowhere to be found when he came up short on primary night earlier this month, also took to the stage to deliver a short victory speech.
“Thank you for the wonderful honor and for the wonderful challenge that lies ahead,” Cochran said.
Cochran’s win is a major victory for the Republican establishment that flushed the race with cash and had encouraged him to run for a seventh Senate term. Throughout the campaign, Cochran seemed almost reluctant to be fighting for his seat again, telling reporters and voters at campaign stops that he had seriously considered just stepping aside.
“I thought it was time for me to retire,” he told The Washington Post in May. “I thought I’d served long enough... But people were saying, ‘what are we going to do without you?’”
Most people had expected Cochran to retire. When he announced he was running again, he had just $800,000 in the bank.
Bragging rights didn’t come cheap for the National Republican Senatorial Committee or its allies. Outside groups backing Cochran spent more than $4.1 million on the race. Outside groups supporting McDaniel who had hoped to change the tea party narrative in 2014 spent $7.2 million.
Mississippi’s race had taken several strange turns: At one point, a blogger and supporter of the McDaniel campaign was arrested for taking photos of Cochran’s ailing wife in a nursing home. A McDaniel staffer was also caught locked in the county courthouse on primary election night.
Around the country, the tea party seemed to get beat down just about everywhere on election night. In Oklahoma, Republican Rep. James Lankford won his party’s primary nomination to replace outgoing GOP Sen. Tom Coburn.
Despite endorsements from Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and spending nearly $2 million on the race, conservative groups came up short in their quest to push their “outsider” candidate, state House Speaker T.W. Shannon, into a runoff with Lankford.