June 4, 2014 10:09:23 AM
Locked in a squeaker of a race, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel pointed toward a possible June 24 runoff after battling to a near-draw Tuesday in a primary that underscored Republican differences.
Unofficial returns from 99.5 percent of the state's precincts showed McDaniel with slightly over 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race and Cochran with slightly less. It takes a majority by one candidate to avoid a runoff.
Locally, unofficial results show Cochran carried Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties with a combined 7,270 votes over McDaniel's 4,351 and Carey's 82.
"For too long, we've been silent. For too long, we sat still. For too long, we let them have their way with us," McDaniel told supporters late Tuesday in a slap at the Washington establishment.
"It's looking like a runoff," conceded Rep. Gregg Harper, addressing a crowd of Cochran supporters.
The Mississippi contest easily overshadowed races in seven other states, several of which sent GOP establishment-backed candidates into fall campaigns for Senate seats that Republicans have targeted in their drive to gain six seats and a majority.
Mississippi officials said the vote tally did not include provisional ballots, some of them cast as a result of the state's new voter ID law. Those voters have five days to furnish proof of residence. An official canvass could take longer, until June 13.
The contest was a race between a pillar of the GOP establishment who has helped funnel millions of dollars to his state and a younger state lawmaker who drew backing from tea party groups and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The incumbent stressed his seniority and proven ability to help Mississippi, while his challenger called for term limits and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
The campaign took a turn toward the sensational when four men, all McDaniel supporters, were arrested and charged with surreptitiously taking photographs of Cochran's 72-year-old wife, who suffers from dementia and has long lived in a nursing home.
Dispatch reporter Nathan Gregory contributed to this report.