Mississippi nail-biter heads toward runoff

Getty, courtesy of Chris McDaniel

The heated brawl between Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and primary challenger state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) looked headed toward a runoff early Wednesday morning.

With 98 percent of the state’s precincts in, McDaniel held a 2,500-vote lead over Cochran, with 49.6 percent to the incumbent’s 48.8 percent. 

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A McDaniel adviser told The Hill that the campaign still sees a pathway to an outright victory on primary night.

"We are not conceding anything," the adviser said.

If neither candidate tops 50 percent, a distinct possibility, and one establishment Republicans are starting to privately acknowledge might be a best-case scenario for Cochran, the race will head to a June 24 runoff.

But McDaniel told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters at his election night rally that he plans to win the race either way.

“One way or the other, I promise you this: Whether it’s tomorrow, or whether it’s three weeks from tonight, we will stand victorious in this race,” he said.

Cochran opted to turn in early rather than rally his supporters like McDaniel.

But he’ll likely face tougher odds in a runoff, where McDaniel’s supporters will get a boost of enthusiasm and outside groups were already signaling plans to go “all in,” as pro-McDaniel FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe told a reporter Tuesday night.

"We're going to double down" in a runoff, he said.

McDaniel’s already been the beneficiary of more than $5 million in spending from national conservative groups supporting his bid, and with the very real possibility of toppling Cochran on the horizon, they might make an even more aggressive play for the seat.

But such a scenario would give Democrats a shot at picking it up. Their preferred candidate, former Rep. Travis Childers, easily won his primary Tuesday night, and Democrats believe McDaniel's personal baggage and gaffe-prone campaign could give them an opening.

Though Cochran has long been seen as the incumbent most likely to fall to a primary challenger, conservatives’ hopes for McDaniel were punctured after a scandal involving a supporter of his derailed his campaign in the final weeks of the race.

But the persistent closeness, through election night, underscores how intense the anti-incumbent sentiment remains in Mississippi and is likely in part the product of a lackluster campaign run by Cochran, who spent minimal time on the trail in the state and had to lean on former Gov. Haley Barbour’s political machine to support his rusty operation.

With the outcome still in limbo, national Republicans reiterated their support for Cochran. 

"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.  We look forward to him emerging victorious in the runoff," National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Collins said in a statement. 

— This piece was updated at 2:31 a.m.

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