By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau
UPDATE: Shortly after 11pm, EST, the Associated Press declared Cochran as the winner of the runoff.
WASHINGTON — Senator Thad Cochran stubbornly clung to a small lead over upstart challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s fiercely fought Republican Senate runoff election Tuesday, a race that tested the tea party’s waning appeal.
Cochran, 76, was seeking nomination to seek a seventh term and a return to Washington as one of its more savvy power brokers. He preached inclusiveness and compromise, and looked for help in the GOP contest from independents and Democrats, including black voters. Non-Republicans could vote Tuesday if they did not vote June 3.
McDaniel, 41, is one of the Republicans’ new breed, an outspoken conservative with backing from the tea party and other outside conservative groups. He worked to rally Republicans, urging them to stick to conservative principles.
The election remained too close to call soon after the polls closed.
Cochran was doing well in the Jackson area, rolling up a 3-to-1 majority in Hinds County. McDaniel fought back with strong showings in the Memphis suburbs and Jones County, his home turf. But in Jackson County, which includes Pascagoula, McDaniel led by a single vote with nearly all the returns in.
McDaniel barely finished ahead of Cochran in the June 3 primary, but was just short of a majority and forced into the two-man runoff. Cochran has since waged a more energetic campaign, urging Democrats and independents to stop McDaniel and his staunch conservative allies.
Tea party groups, as well as well-heeled conservative organizations eager to topple mainstream figures, saw this race as their last best effort to make a splash this year. Their earlier bids to oust well-known Republican figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina flopped.
Even the year’s biggest defeat of an establishment stalwart, unknown Virginia economics professor Dave Brat’s stunning June 10 upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, came without help from the conservative coffers.
Cochran was an especially attractive target. His financial backers were a who’s who of official Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republican National Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans. He outraised McDaniel 3-to-1.
Cochran traveled the state with a coterie of local celebrities. He campaigned with Gov. Phil Bryant and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, a Gulfport, Miss., native, appeared in Cochran’s ads.
McDaniel’s outside support and money came from a roster of conservative groups trying to upend the party hierarchy, including the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks for America.
The Tea Party Express rolled through Mississippi on a bus tour over the weekend. Sarah Palin and libertarian stalwart Ron Paul campaigned for McDaniel.
After getting outhustled in the first round, Cochran showed more fight in the runoff.
On Tuesday, Cochran made an early-morning stop at McElroy’s on the Bayou Coffee Shop in Ocean Springs, a visit to his Rankin County headquarters to fire up workers, lunch at Mama Hamil’s restaurant in Madison, and a stop at his Madison headquarters.
Cochran’s style is quiet and unassuming. At a McComb car dealership recently, he walked in without fanfare, shook some hands, spoke with no notes about his years at the Capitol, and shook more hands.
He made a subtle pitch for Democrats and independents, many of whom could qualify to vote Tuesday. One Cochran ad started with him greeting African-American voters. Most are Democrats and can vote Tuesday if they did not vote June 3.
McDaniel’s events were a stark contrast. He speaks energetically, invokes the legacy of President Ronald Reagan, takes lots of questions and banters with the media.
In Madison last week, 2012 Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum led a rally of about 300 people. “He’s not for turning over more power and control to Washington, D.C.,” Santorum said of McDaniel.
The challenger routinely protested Cochran’s ties to Washington and the party establishment.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour’s organization supported Cochran, warning that a McDaniel win would mean much-needed federal money would dry up.
Cochran pushed that theme hard. Every day featured a visit to a defense contractor or to a city whose infrastructure had been rebuilt since Hurricane Katrina nine years ago. McDaniel countered that he would advocate for Mississippi, but that perhaps some spending should be curtailed in order to get the federal debt down.
Tuesday’s verdict also was a test of voter appetite for old vs. new. Voters often said that they liked and appreciated Cochran, but that it was time for a change.
“It’s time for a real conservative,” said Rob Rall, owner of a Flowood boat repair company. “I don’t see where all this spending has gotten us anywhere. We’re still near the bottom of every list.”
McDaniel got cheers saying he’d save billions by eliminating the federal Education Department and returning its funding to states. Cochran countered that such a strategy was naive and that the state badly needed those federal dollars.
Gavin Lott, a retired Pearl biology teacher, sided with McDaniel. “We waste enough money in other places,” he said. “We can use that money to help fund education.”
His chief argument, though, was one that echoed throughout the state: “I don’t think somebody in Washington should tell us how to educate our kids.”
AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan