In Mississippi, A Heated Senate Primary Spills Into Runoff

In one of the country's most competitive primaries, incumbent Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel appear headed for a runoff.

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A bitterly fought Republican Senate primary in Mississippi is heading for overtime. After yesterday's voting, longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran is trailing his Tea Party backed challenger, State Sen. Chris McDaniel. The race appears headed for a runoff in three weeks. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been covering the contest and joins us now from Jackson, Mississippi. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: This Senate primary was considered the biggest stand-off between the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. What do yesterday's result tell us?

ELLIOTT: I think that being a powerful, six-term incumbent with the state's political leadership fully behind you just isn't what it used to be. The vote tally not finished yet, so nothing is official. But simply being in this position is a victory for Chris McDaniel and the national conservative groups that have backed him in this race. McDaniel has been arguing that this Mississippi contest is about the very soul of the National Republican Party and whether the state can steer the national party back on a true conservative path. And last night he told his supporters that they made history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CHRIS MCDANIEL: Because of your hard work, because of your dedication we sit here tonight leading a 42-year incumbent.

CORNISH: Debbie, we're talking about a state famous for re-electing incumbents and getting seniority and clout in Washington. No more?

ELLIOTT: No more. I think Thad Cochran found out that about half of Republican voters, in Mississippi here, agreed with McDaniel that power like that is part of the problem in Washington.

CORNISH: And what are you hearing from the Cochran campaign?

ELLIOTT: You know, I think they're regrouping. They said they were going to meet and plot a runoff. They say that Cochran could end up with the most votes. But likely not the majority threshold that one of them needs to avoid the runoff. So the question, I think now, is whether Cochran who is 76 can really gear up for a another grueling three weeks and find the fire that he needs for this campaign. You know, by nature he's sort of a soft-spoken grandfatherly type.

And he's not necessarily cut an inspiring figure out on the stump. He's sort of left it to the surrogates, like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. And of late, he's even admitted that he thought about retiring, but was talked into staying in, you know, trying for a seventh term because Mississippi needed him. He's been very tightly controlled, not making a lot of public appearances. In fact, he didn't even show at his own party last night in Jackson.

CORNISH: Well, assuming that there is a runoff, what would you expect over the next three weeks?

ELLIOTT: Well, Rep. Strategist Stuart Stevens, who was advising Cochran, says look for an old-fashioned Mississippi slugfest. And you know, it's just really hard to imagine that this fight could get any worse. Down to the wire, a few weeks before yesterday's voting, there was this bizarre twist and negative turn of this campaign. Some of McDaniel's supporters were arrested in this alleged conspiracy to photograph Cochran's ailing wife.

She is in a nursing home in Jackson. And a conservative blogger allegedly went in and took a photograph of her. That knocked McDaniel off-message for a time. But then the 41-year-old got back out on the stump. He got some help from some national conservatives, including Sarah Palin. And he seems to have done what he needed to do to survive another day.

CORNISH: Well, the Democrats already have a candidate for the fall, that's Travis Childers, former congressman. How do they view this possibility of a Republican runoff?

ELLIOTT: Oh, I think they love it. This is a chance for Republicans to further bloody themselves, when they're trying to win control of the Senate. Childers, as you said, is a former congressman. He was a Blue Dog Democrat who has a populist appeal here. He voted against Obamacare, he's pro-gun, he's anti-abortion. So he's going to be out trying to make the best of this time between now and November.

CORNISH: OK. Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Jackson, Mississippi.

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