HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- The nastiest campaign in the country likely will go on for three more weeks.
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran trailed tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in Tuesday’s Republican primary. But McDaniel could not quite get more than 50 percent of the votes because of a third GOP challenger, Thomas Carey, who pulled just under 2 percent. McDaniel held a lead of less than 1 percent, with 98 percent of the vote counted, at 49.6 percent to Cochran’s 48.6 percent.
Unless McDaniel clears the 50 percent threshold, the election will be headed for a runoff on June 24, raising difficult questions for Cochran and for the Republican establishment in Washington.
Do the National Republican Senatorial Committee and establishment Republicans double down on Cochran and continue to send money and bodies to Mississippi to try to crush an energetic upstart whose supporters swarmed to the polls? Is that even possible? Can Cochran continue to refuse to debate McDaniel, as he has done so far? And how will the presence of Cochran, 76, on the campaign trail shape the race, given his decidedly uneven performance on the stump so far?
The NRSC answered some of those questions in a statement to the press just before 2 a.m. Wednesday.
"Should Mississippi go to a runoff, we will expect a vigorous debate about the future of our country over the next three weeks and we will continue to fully support Thad Cochran," NRSC executive director Rob Collins said in the statement.
McDaniel, 41, promised a room full of supporters, who stayed at his rally here in the local convention center until almost midnight, that he would win the election.
“One way or another, whether it’s tomorrow or whether it’s three weeks from tonight, we will stand victorious,” he said.
McDaniel called the night “historic.”
“Our founders gave us something incredible didn’t they?” he said. “The idea that the government works for us, not the other way around. The idea of the consent of the governed.”
“For too long we’ve been silent. For too long we sat still. For too long we let them have their way with us, and tonight in Mississippi, they heard us once again,” he said, to loud cheers from the crowd.
As he left the stage with his wife and two sons, McDaniel was greeted by Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots, whose group has supported his campaign. They embraced, and posed for a picture. FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe, whose group has also spent money in this race for the challenger, stood watching nearby.
And McDaniel's campaign manager, state Sen. Melanie Sojourner, rallied the crowd to redouble their efforts in the coming weeks.
“If this lasts three more weeks, you have come out so big for us, and so huge, and everything tomorrow starts over, it’s votes and dollars and volunteers. Every single thing we’ve done for the last eight months we have to replicate, starting tomorrow,” Sojourner said. “So there are sign up sheets. There are donation baskets. Anything and everything you can do, we will start forever if we start back over at zero.”
McDaniel aides were heard outside their war room, where earlier supporters had joined hands and stood in a circle praying, talking about the need to figure out how to raise money for the three-week contest.
“It’s time for people to make an investment,” one said.
“So many people didn’t want to vote for Chris because they didn’t think he had a chance. Now he has a chance,” another said.
In Jackson, Cochran supporters had mostly left the senator’s election night rally when Rep. Gregg Harper emerged to address the crowd on Cochran’s behalf.
The prospect of the two Republicans bludgeoning each other for three more weeks is a best-case scenario for Democrats in Mississippi, who have encouraged the idea that McDaniel may be vulnerable to Democrat Travis Childers in the fall.
Cochran, seeking his seventh term in office, had appeared ready to defeat McDaniel two weeks ago, when the state senator was engulfed in controversy amid questions over whether he knew about or was involved with a supporter’s arrest for entering a nursing home where Cochran’s wife lives, and videotaping her. The McDaniel supporter briefly posted the video of Rose Cochran, who has dementia, online before pulling it down.
But in the last week, the furor over the nursing home episode has subsided, and attention has returned to Cochran’s weakness as a candidate. It’s a disadvantageous spot to be in, heading into a three-week runoff.
Cochran, like McDaniel, received higher than expected raw numbers of votes. But turning out his support against a McDaniel base that is almost certain to be just as energized as before -- if not more so by the smell of blood in the water -- will be a difficult task.