As the cliffhanger Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Mississippi dragged toward a bitter runoff between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel, a new name ascended to center stage: Democrat Travis Childers.
Childers, the former congressman who easily won his party's primary as a conservative Democrat, is poised to play a starring role in the Republican Party's new nightmare — a prolonged GOP slugfest that gives Democrats a chance at what should safely be a Republican seat.
The prospect of Childers' rise in Mississippi has Democratic and GOP strategists calculating the odds of an upset in November, as the 76-year-old Cochran's wobbly campaign struggled to fend off momentum from McDaniel, a state senator and tea party upstart who came close to toppling the incumbent in Tuesday's primary.
Brian Perry, a GOP strategist whose Mississippi Conservatives PAC backed Cochran, warned that Childers "can win." One Democratic strategist said the Magnolia State was "not as red and conservative" as some of the other Southern states where Republicans dominate, putting Mississippi potentially within reach.
Recent polls show that Cochran would easily beat Childers, but the outcome in a race with McDaniel is less certain.
Vote counting from Tuesday's Republican primary continued Wednesday at a sluggish pace. The state elections division does not make public a modern online tally system, as many other states do.
The Associated Press said Wednesday that with 99% of precincts reporting, McDaniel received 49.5% to Cochran's 49%, meaning that they will face each other in a June 24 runoff.
"The good people of Mississippi made it known that Sen. McDaniel has the momentum in this race," said the candidate's spokesman, Noel Fritsch, who called McDaniel "the conservative champion who represents the future of the Republican Party."
In the noticeably poor state, $12 million was spent by the candidates and outside groups.
"Mississippians now have three weeks to consider their choice," Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell said Wednesday. "Do they want Sen. Thad Cochran, a good man that always put what is best for Mississippi first, or Chris McDaniel, a trial lawyer politician that is manipulated, bought and paid for?"
Establishment Republicans, who backed Cochran for a seventh term, promised to double down on their candidate, despite the senator's lackluster campaign.
The flow of resources to Mississippi is a distraction for the GOP as Republicans are trying to pick up six seats in November to flip control of the Senate from Democrats. Now they must fight to avoid losing a seat.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent more than $500,000 so far, pledged to "stand with" Cochran, as did the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which took the unusual step of endorsing primary candidates this year after previous elections produced conservative candidates who proved too extreme to win general elections.
The establishment is in a not-so-secret feud with the tea party backers of McDaniel's campaign, which surged as the long-shot candidate positioned himself as the new face of the GOP. McDaniel aligned himself with firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
The Club for Growth, a PAC that has already poured $2.5 million to help McDaniel, urged Cochran to "do the honorable thing" and step aside. Tea party supporters volunteered to host a debate.
"We will be all in," said Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots, whose group has spent $700,000 so far.
Meanwhile, backers of Childers, the mustachioed Southerner with a slight resemblance to William Faulkner, were quietly surveying the landscape as his campaign geared up for the eventual general election showdown.
In Mississippi, a red state with little tolerance for President Obama's party, it's a long road between now and November for a Democrat trying to win statewide office. But one that just got easier, thanks to the Republican divide.