June 4 (Bloomberg) -- Tea Party-aligned Chris McDaniel battled longtime incumbent Thad Cochran for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Mississippi in a race that remained too close to call with most ballots counted as of early today.
McDaniel had a slight lead, with the prospect of a June 24 runoff looming because he was short of the 50 percent mark needed to be declared the winner in yesterday’s primary. His showing, though, buoyed the Tea Party movement’s efforts to score its biggest victory of the year.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, McDaniel had 49.6 percent of the vote while Cochran had 48.8 percent, according to the Associated Press tally. Although the race’s third candidate, Thomas Carey, was far behind with 1.6 percent, his scant total meant a winner or the runoff scenario might not be clear until all precincts and other outstanding ballots -- such as absentee ones -- are counted.
In his performance in the primary, the 41-year-old McDaniel overcame a controversy dominating the campaign’s final days that concerned a secret photo taken by one of his supporters of Cochran’s wife in a nursing home.
McDaniel, a state senator, was endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, as well as Washington-based groups allied with the Tea Party, including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Madison Project. Even if he ends up in a runoff, he will offer Tea Party adherents their best chance for a major win in an election season in which they have had few of them.
Previously, the Tea Party had seen just one of its favored candidates capture a Republican U.S. Senate nomination, for an open seat in Nebraska. In Senate or House primaries in Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, Idaho and Pennsylvania, candidates supported by Republican-allied business groups -- including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- defeated Tea Party-linked foes.
Among Cochran’s backers were a super-political action committee called Mississippi Conservatives, whose leaders included Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member and the nephew of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also supported Cochran.
Cochran, 76, first went to Congress after winning a House seat in 1972 and then was elected to the Senate in 1978. In his five Senate campaigns since then, he had a primary opponent only once -- in 1996, when he won re-nomination with 95 percent of the vote.
He exemplifies much of what the Tea Party despises: Washington longevity, a willingness to seek compromise on some issues and a perceived lack of commitment to reducing the government’s debt and deficit -- goals at the movement’s core.
Cochran, a former Appropriations Committee chairman, was ranked in 2010 as the top requester of now-banned home state spending projects known as earmarks, by the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste. The group recorded his total that year as $490 million.
With polls showing McDaniel and Cochran locked in a close race, the campaign took an unexpected turn in mid-May when a Mississippi political blogger backing McDaniel was charged with improperly entering a nursing home and photographing Cochran’s wife, who suffers from dementia. One of the photos was posted on the Internet, drawing widespread criticism.
The photo was part of an online effort to raise questions about the senator’s relationship with a longtime Washington aide, who has accompanied him on official trips outside the U.S. Cochran has denied any inappropriate relationship with the aide.
Four men, all McDaniel supporters, have been arrested in connection with the incident.
Although no evidence has surfaced linking the event to McDaniel or his aides, he and his campaign struggled initially to present a clear timeline of what and when they knew about the incident. Cochran’s campaign repeatedly pointed to those inconsistencies.
In a state that leans heavily Republican, the party’s eventual Senate nominee will be favored in November’s general election against former U.S. Representative Travis Childers, 56, who won the Democratic Senate primary. In the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won 55.5 percent of Mississippi’s vote.
Childers, who served in the House from 2008-2011, opposes abortion rights, backs gun rights and voted in Congress against President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul.
A McDaniel nomination could stoke concerns among some national Republican leaders that, like several Tea Party-aligned candidates who won Senate nominations in 2010 and 2012, he proves unable to broaden his base of support.
Losses by those candidates in Senate elections that Republicans initially expected to win contributed to the party’s failure to win the chamber’s majority. This year, Republicans need a net gain of six seats for Senate control.
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