Republican Sen. Thad Cochran rallied bedrock Republicans and black Democrats to narrowly squeak past tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s primary runoff Tuesday night as the bitter campaign shook up GOP politics, widening the rift between the party’s establishment and hard-right wing.
The race was among the most costly and hard-edged of the midterm primary election cycle — one that, at least in its final days, took on racial overtones. Cochran’s team reached out to Democrats, particularly to African Americans, who tend not to vote Republican. Under state law, voters from the other party who did not vote in the primary were eligible to vote in the GOP runoff.
That effort sparked threats and a fierce political debate over both voter intimidation and voter fraud. Tea party groups stationed monitors at the polls, as did leaders of the NAACP’s Mississippi chapter.
But after the votes were counted Tuesday night, the six-term senator and his supporters were buoyant.
“It’s a group effort, not a solo, and so we all have a right to be proud of our state tonight,” Cochran said at his election night party at a children’s museum. “You were the ones who helped reach all the voters.”
That upbeat mood contrasted with the fighting message delivered by McDaniel, who refused to concede and raised the specter of voting problems. He bashed the Republican Party for trying to “character-assassinate one of their own.”
“We were right tonight,” McDaniel said, making no attempt to bridge the party divide.
“There were literally dozens of irregularities reported across the state — and you know why. You’re familiar with the problems that we have,” he said. “Now it’s our job to make sure that the sanctity of the vote is upheld. We have to be absolutely certain that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”
McDaniel narrowly led Cochran in the primary three weeks ago, but failed to win 50%, triggering the runoff.
But with 99% of precincts reporting Tuesday, Cochran had 51% of the vote to McDaniel’s 49%, according to the Associated Press.
Cochran campaigned on the promise that his experience and seniority in Washington would mean a continued flow of federal resources to the impoverished state. Football great Brett Favre, a Gulf Coast native, appeared in a television ad for Cochran to buttress that point.
From the start, the Republican primary was Cochran’s to lose. But the 76-year-old senator appeared blindsided by the rising tide of antiestablishment frustration that McDaniel articulated with fiery speeches, in which he rejected the senator’s spending prowess as among the wrongs of Washington.
As McDaniel gained momentum, the race became a study in contrasts. The younger candidate crisscrossed the state, exciting crowds with his charismatic appeal that some heard as nostalgia for the values of Mississippi’s past. Cochran was criticized as insufficiently conservative, and his frequent staged appearances among bankers and Chamber of Commerce allies seemed tone-deaf to the populist fervor.
Money poured into the state — more than $17 million — as establishment organizations, including the chamber, tried to tamp down tea party enthusiasts the way party elders had successfully done in other primary battlegrounds. Their aim was to prevent the GOP from nominating a candidate too extreme to win the general election.
But tea party groups, and the conservative Club for Growth, spent more, propelling the little-known McDaniel forward. Even his past racially and sexually tinged comments as a talk-radio host found few detractors.
“The narrative around the country has been some tea party versus establishment fight,” Joe Nosef, chairman of the state Republican Party, said before the votes were tallied. “What it is, is an incumbent versus people who don’t like Washington.”
Cochran’s team changed course after being forced into the runoff. Its outreach to Democrats appeared to pay off as Cochran boosted his showing in the heavily African American counties in the Delta region, and in the capital, Jackson, according to those compiling election returns. McDaniel supporter Matt Kibbe of the tea party group FreedomWorks called the outreach “disgraceful.”
But Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, said African American voters were pleased — if skeptical — to see a Republican asking for their support.
“It’s an interesting time in Mississippi politics, where race has always been used to galvanize a certain set of voters, that is shifting where there’s an appeal to black voters for their support,” said Johnson. “For the most part, most see it with a suspicious eye.”
At the same time, white Republicans, many of whom have been voting for Cochran since he was first elected in 1978, viewed McDaniel’s ascent as a wake-up call that prompted greater turnout Tuesday, strategists said.
The outcome of the rough race may foreshadow a tough general election ahead. Democrats hope the bruising GOP campaign will give their candidate, conservative-leaning former congressman Travis Childers, an opening in the red state come November.
Meanwhile, in New York, veteran Rep. Charles B. Rangel appeared to win his 23rd congressional victory against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat in the Democratic primary Tuesday.
Rangel, 84, was first elected to Congress in 1970.
Because there is no Republican running for the seat, the primary victory is tantamount to a general election win.
Rangel told supporters at his Harlem headquarters, “We don’t need a whole lot of numbers to be able to tell you how good we feel.”
With 98.6% of precincts reporting, Rangel had 47.4% to Espaillat’s 43.6%. A third candidate, Michael Walrond Jr., had 7.9%.
Times staff writer Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report.