In a dramatic finale to one of the most bitter and expensive races this primary season, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran on Tuesday barely beat back the strongest challenge in his 36-year Senate career to win a runoff election and proceed to the November ballot.
The Assocated Press waited until more than 98 percent of the vote was counted before calling the race with Cochran leading tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel by 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent.
The runoff, prompted when McDaniel edged Cochran in a June 4 primary but just failed to win 50 percent of the vote, threatened to end Cochran's career. His years on Capitol Hill include serving as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Republican Conference.
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Cochran led almost from the start, at one point opening a 10-percentage point lead over his challenger, but as more and more votes came in McDaniel edged agonizingly closer and closer. At the time the race was called Cochran had just 4,798 votes to spare.
This is your victory," Cochran said to cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters in Jackson. He thanked his supporters and talked about how he enjoyed campaigning in all parts of the state during the runoff.
"What we have reflected here tonight is a consensus for more and better jobs for Mississippians, and for a military force with the capacity to defend the interests of the United States," Cochran said.
"It's a group effort, it's not a solo and so we all have a right to be proud of our state tonight."
But McDaniel refused to concede and referenced "dozens of irregularities" in his speech to supporters in Hattiesburg.
"Millions of Republicans feel like strangers in their own party," McDaniel said. "Let me say this: We fought, we had a dream — and the dream is still with us."
He attacked Cochran for "abandoning the conservative movement," and allowing the runoff race to be "decided by liberal Democrats."
McDaniel also hinted that he would challenge the vote. "We are not prone to surrender, we Mississippians," he said.
"Before this race is over we have to make absolutely certain the Republican primary was won by Republican voters," McDaniel added. "There were literally dozens of irregularities reported all across this state."
McDaniel, 41, a state senator since 2008, is an attorney and a former radio talk-show host who ran on a tea party-backed platform that sought to paint Cochran as not conservative enough and as a stalwart of the Republican establishment.
Cochran, 76, based his campaign on his record of bringing billions of federal dollars into Mississippi for shipbuilding, highways, crop subsidies, disaster relief and other projects.
The Magnolia State, with the lowest median income in the United States, depends on that money, and the jobs it creates, for nearly half of its budget.
Throughout his career, Cochran had been re-elected by wide margins. He faces Democrat Travis Childers and the Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara in the Nov. 4 general election. The last time Mississippi chose a Democratic senator was in 1982.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, whose Mississippi Conservatives PAC supported Cochran, told Newsmax on Tuesday that the incumbent would benefit from stronger voter turnout stemming from a clear discussion of the issues affecting state residents. That did not occur during the primaries.
"The runoff was quite different from the first primary," Barbour told Newsmax within a half-hour after the polls closed. "The primary was dominated by nasty, negative attacks.
"That had the effect of submerging issues. There weren't any policy issues in the first primary except McDaniel saying that Cochran wasn’t conservative enough."
Barbour noted that McDaniel had said early in the primary season that the federal government's role in education was "unconstitutional." The remark brought strong attacks
from Barbour and other Cochran supports — and McDaniel later backtracked on those remarks.
Still, Barbour told Newsmax that the education comment "was probably the biggest issue in the runoff. People in Mississippi care about their schools. That motivated a lot of people who hadn't paid much attention to the first primary."
Cochran's victory capped one of the most bitter and expensive
Senate races — as high as $17 million for the GOP primary alone — since Cochran was first elected in 1972. Outside groups have spent more than $12 million on the race.
Besides the Mississippi Conservatives, Cochran was backed by such establishment groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors. The senator spent $4 million on the campaign.
He was endorsed by Mississippi native and NFL legend Brett Favre — as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John McCain.
"We are facing a crisis with our veterans," McCain said after a Cochran rally in Jackson on Monday. "We are facing a crisis internationally. His opponent has no experience or knowledge with those issues."
McDaniel's support came from such groups as Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Black Conservatives Fund. He put up $1.5 million in his quest to unseat Cochran.
His endorsements came from such tea party stalwarts as 2008 presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, and former game-show host Chuck Woolery.
The race grew even more acrimonious in the waning days, as Cochran reached out to Democrats and African Americans who did not vote in the June 3 Democratic primary.
A record 318,902 Mississippians voted in the primary. Mississippi voters do not register by party. Officials said more absentee ballots had been requested for Tuesday's election than in the primary, suggesting turnout might be heavier.
But Cochran's strategy outraged McDaniel supporters and tea party groups — and hired several observers, including former Justice Department lawyer J. Christian Adams, to watch over the voting
The NAACP, the Justice Department, the Mississippi secretary of state's office and the state attorney general's office also planned to observe Tuesday's voting.
While the tea party movement, founded five years ago in the fight over federal government spending and Obamacare, has had more losses than wins this election cycle, some of its victories have shaken up Washington.
The biggest was the stunning defeat June 10 of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to little-known economics professor Dave Brat in the Virginia primary.
Republicans need to pick up six seats to win control of the 100-seat U.S. Senate, which would give them greater leverage to oppose President Barack Obama's agenda during his remaining two years in the White House.
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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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