The intense struggle for control of the Republican Party came to a dramatic head in Mississippi on Tuesday when Sen. Thad Cochran faced a stiff challenge from the tea party-backed Chris McDaniel in a nasty and expensive primary contest that was too close to call with a majority of the ballots counted.
With more than 95 percent of the vote tallied, McDaniel was ahead by less than one percentage point and the possibility of runoff in three weeks looked increasingly real.
Cochran went into the contest at risk of becoming the first U.S. senator to be toppled this year in an ongoing struggle between the GOP establishment and the conservative insurgency. With nearly all precincts reporting, McDaniel had 49.5 percent of the vote to Cochran’s 49 percent. If neither campaign can claim 50 percent of the vote, it would mean a second faceoff, on June 24. Late Tuesday, two counties had still not reported any results, according to the Associated Press.
The more than $12 million campaign tested the might of two starkly different Republicans split along generational and ideological lines. It came as tea party challengers elsewhere fizzled against more moderate GOP senators. The result, some Republicans said, was a coalition of national tea party groups desperate for a victory.
“They really want a McDaniel win because they want a head on the mantel,” party strategist Ford O’Connell said. Tea party groups “need to be able to raise money” to stay afloat, he added, “and to raise money, you have to show results.”