Mississippi Senate GOP Brawl Looks Headed for a Runoff
ABC's Shushannah Walshe and Barbara Schmitt report:
HATTIESBURG, Miss.-It looks like Mississippi Republicans will have to wait another three weeks to find out who their party's candidate will be come November, since none of the GOP candidates hit the requisite 50% mark to win the June 3 primary election.Six term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran and Tea Party-backed Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel, were locked in a nail biter of a race throughout the evening. According to the Associated Press, with 98% of precincts reporting, McDaniel was leading Cochran with 49.6% to 48.8% with just over 2,500 votes separating the two. A third Republican on the ballot, Thomas Carey, came in with 1.6% percent forcing the June 24 runoff. This was the worst result for the party as it extends the primary, which has been exceptionally nasty.
About 300 McDaniel supporters gathered at the Hattiesburg Lake Terrace Convention Center in Hattiesburg, Miss. Tuesday night to watch the results trickle in. A country band entertained the crowd as several dozen gathered around a monitor as counties throughout the Magnolia State reported in their results.
In a speech late into the night, McDaniel, 42, told his supporters their "fight is not over."
"Remember it is about the people - it's always been about the people and there are still a handful out there that haven't been counted," McDaniel said. "There's still a handful we owe our allegiance to. It's their government. I work for them. We have to hear what they say. We will probably know tomorrow. But one way or the other I promise you this: Whether it is tomorrow or it's three weeks from tonight, we will stand victorious in this race."
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Over the past few months, the primary grew increasingly nasty and at times took bizarre turns, developing into a race that has been called the "dirtiest" this season. The story that has dominated headlines most recently involved a McDaniel supporter who snuck into a nursing home last month where Cochran's bedridden wife has lived for over a decade with dementia. Once inside, the McDaniel supporter proceeded to secretly film the wife of the three-term Congressman-turned-Senator.
The supporter, conservative blogger Clayton Kelly, put the video online. McDaniel, however, denies any relationship with Kelly and has said he was not involved in the decision to sneak into Rose Cochran's room. Kelly was arrested, in addition to three others, including a Tea Party leader.
Cochran, 76, has been vocal about his disgust over the incident and he even used it in a campaign ad decrying "dirty politics." McDaniel, 42, pounced on the ad, calling it "shameful" for his opponent to "engage in such desperate slander and lies."
In an interview with ABC News, Mississippi Republican Party chairman Joe Nosef said his state is known "for a lot of things including warm people, hospitality, and plenty of robust competitive primaries and general elections, but this [election] has been an anomaly."
"This was a race where you had more mean-spirited behavior than you would normally have," Nosef, who chose to remain neutral in the race, said, adding that the "level of vitriol" is incredibly high.
"The incident with Mrs. Cochran and all that surrounded it with people being arrested who are well known in the community just threw accelerant on what was already a rough campaign," Nosef said. "I regret it happened, not just for the Cochran family, but also for Mississippi politics."
Despite the negative publicity surrounding the incident, McDaniel has racked up some big-name backers including Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, both of whom have appeared in his ads. Palin even hit the campaign trail for McDaniel on Friday telling the crowd, "Chris McDaniel knows that the status quo has got to go."
On the other end of the Mississippi GOP spectrum, Cochran had the backing of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who lent his voice to a radio ad. In a statement released Monday by the pro-Cochran, Barbour-backed Mississippi Conservatives PAC, Barbour even called Palin and Santorum "outside celebrities" only involved in the race "to politically help themselves nationally, not because they are trying to help (Mississippi.)" That same super PAC has also highlighted some of the more controversial things McDaniel has said in his days as a talk radio host and said McDaniel would "embarrass" the state.
Thus far, the tea party has poured millions of dollars into the Mississippi race with the hope of using it as a way to win the heart and soul of the Republican Party. Winning this race would provide a massive victory for the group, which has seen some of its energy wane since its 2010 political inception. Now that the race will likely be extended, expect even more money to make its way into the state.
In addition to tea party money, third party groups have also dumped millions of dollars into the race, making it one of the most expensive primaries the 2014 cycle with over $7 million being spent.
Cochran, known as "Gentleman Thad," is an old-school politician and stressed that his time in Washington and his role on the Appropriations Committee benefit the state. McDaniel spent the campaign trying to define Cochran as a Washington insider and that it is time for new blood after so many years, successfully tapping into anti-Washington sentiment in the state. This fight will now go on until the end of the month.
Despite the intra-party civil war, President of the conservative group FreedomWorks, Matt Kibbe, said McDaniel's message resonates with all fiscally conservative Republicans.
"I don't actually think that this is about the Tea Party vs. the GOP," Kibbe, who was at McDaniel's party Tuesday night, told ABC News. "I think, in some ways, you're going back to straight up Reaganism- the kind of message he took into the '76 convention when he challenged a sitting Republican. There's too much made about the Tea Party vs. the establishment. I think this is just a return to the basic values that have defined the GOP when it's been successful."
Despite Mississippi's red-state political heritage, some political commentators have said if McDaniel were to be victorious coming out of Tuesday's primary, then former Rep. Travis Childers, the Democratic Senate nominee, would have had a better shot at winning the general election.
However, Nosef says it's the bruising battle-which will now continue-is what will make the general election more competitive, not who ended up on top.
"We are assuming that after this primary the general election is going to be much tougher and we're going to dedicate much more resources that we ever thought we would need to," Nosef said.
ABC's Elizabeth McLaughlin and Alisa Wiersema contributed to this report.