Down to the bitter end in Mississippi

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The nastiest primary fight in the nation is headed for a vicious finale as Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and state Sen. Chris McDaniel begin a runoff that could have major repercussions on the battle for the Senate.

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McDaniel’s team believes it has a strong shot at toppling Cochran, who failed to top 50 percent support in Tuesday’s primary despite strong support from the party establishment a number of controversies for McDaniel’s campaign.

Cochran’s team said Wednesday they have no plans to change up their message, and think focusing on the turnout game could lead them to victory. They’ve been touting Cochran’s seniority and what it brings to Mississippi, as well as knocking McDaniel for his out-of-state support.

“We kinda like to fight in Mississippi. When people from out of state start telling people from Mississippi what to do, it just never works out really well,” one Cochran strategist told The Hill.

But Cochran has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, complicating those attacks.

Cochran heads into the runoff nursing fresh wounds. Multiple media reports over the past week have raised questions about his age and fitness for office, and highlighted his tendency to dodge the press when out on the campaign trail.

Scrutiny on those aspects of his candidacy will only grow, driven in part by McDaniel’s repeated demands for a debate with Cochran.

If recent weeks are any guide, it might prove difficult for Cochran’s team to cut into McDaniel’s support.

The super PAC backing Cochran’s bid, Mississippians for a Conservative Future, hit McDaniel with a barrage of attacks during the primary, on everything from his position on earmarks to his racially charged comments as a talk-radio host.

The Cochran strategist told The Hill that they’d continue to hammer him on the scandal surrounding a scheme allegedly hatched by his supporters to photograph Cochran’s ailing wife in her nursing home.

“Oh lord no,” the Cochran strategist said, when asked whether the focus on the scandal backfired.

“You have a candidate, a campaign that has three key supporters facing multiple felony charges — that’s one of the things that’s going to give us an opportunity in the runoff.”

“You’re going to hear more about it because there could be more happening.”

But facing the very real possibility of McDaniel eventually winning the nomination, establishment actors might hesitate to push the attacks too far, lest they take a damaged candidate into the general election who could be beaten by Democrats.

It’s also unclear whether Cochran will receive the reinforcements he’ll need to buoy his depleted campaign coffers and fight back against what’s likely to be a hefty investment from conservative groups on McDaniel’s behalf.

At least one major establishment group, American Crossroads, said Wednesday that it would be sitting out the runoff.

“Other than Alaska, we have completed our work on Senate primaries this cycle and are now focused on general elections. With the Chamber [of Commerce], the [National Republican Senatorial Committee], and a local super PAC already backing Cochran, this is not our fight,” said Paul Lindsay, American Crossroads’ communications director.

Other conservative groups are “doubling down,” according to FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe.

One of the groups backing McDaniel, Club for Growth, on Wednesday called for Cochran to drop out of the race.

“He should do the honorable thing and decline to contest the runoff,” said President Chris Chocola in a statement.

If he doesn’t, Chocola added, the Club “will vigorously pursue this race to its conclusion.”

But with more than just Cochran’s clout on the line, establishment actors are unlikely to give in. There’s a chance, albeit slim in deep-red Mississippi, that if McDaniel wins the nomination, Democrats could pick up the seat in the fall.

Democrats are running former Rep. Travis Childers, their strongest possible candidate for the fall.

It’s unclear whether Democrats would ultimately spend money to make the race competitive, when they have over a dozen other seats to defend or pursue this cycle, but an additional pickup opportunity would give them some much-needed breathing room as they work to defend their six-seat majority in the Senate.

McDaniel’s team has dismissed that possibility outright, but it’s one that has the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Chamber of Commerce planning to go to bat for Cochran in the primary.

“It's going to be a costly several weeks for both sides, and outside parties will need to invest and help, but the race remains a dead heat,” said NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring in an email.

Dayspring said that “plenty of challenges remain” for McDaniel: “His campaign is broke, the scandal is still a cloud over his campaign, and there’s now national attention on his controversies.”