JACKSON, Miss. — The tea party and its allies took a major step toward getting their first win over a high-profile incumbent in the 2014 primary season after state Sen. Chris McDaniel forced six-term Sen. Thad Cochran into a three-week runoff that political analysts say will boil down to turnout — likely favoring the challenger and his ardent supporters.
The McDaniel camp called the results of the Mississippi primary "historic," and some of his biggest financial backers said the outcome is proof that Mr. McDaniel is marching toward an inevitable victory.
The Club for Growth went the farthest, saying Mr. Cochran should recognize that his time in the Senate is up and drop out of the race.
"He should do the honorable thing and decline to contest the runoff," said Chris Chocola, president of the group, which has a super PAC that spent $2.6 million on behalf of Mr. McDaniel. "Should he choose to persist, the Club for Growth PAC and conservatives throughout Mississippi will vigorously pursue this race to its conclusion, and we will look forward to the election of Senator Chris McDaniel."
The Cochran camp, meanwhile, downplayed the notion that the incumbent's days are numbered as well as the idea that his rival has the edge when it comes to voter intensity.
"They thought Thad Cochran couldn't take a punch," said Stuart Stevens, a Cochran adviser. "Well, he took this $5 million punch from a challenger, and he is here standing. Now he's getting back on the bus to head out to campaign."
"Thad Cochran will go out and fight for another three weeks, and he will win," he said.
But Henry Barbour, who created the Mississippi Conservative PAC that spent nearly $1.7 million on pro-Cochran ads, told The Washington Times on more than one occasion that a runoff race would likely favor Mr. McDaniel because of the characteristic low turnout in runoff races.
On election night, which ended with both men claiming 49 percent of the vote, Mr. Cochran disappointed some supporters by sending out a surrogate — Rep. Gregg Harper — to thank them for showing up.
Mr. McDaniel, meanwhile, received a hero's welcome and revved up the crowd by promising "whether it is tomorrow, or whether it is three weeks from tonight, we will stand victorious in this race!"
Less than 24 hour later, parts of the GOP establishment signaled that they were mulling over how much more to invest in the Cochran campaign and whether to save its resources for the goal of picking up the six seats they need to flip control of the Senate.
That may not bode well for Mr. Cochran, who had the support of the state's top elected leaders — including Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Gov. Phil Bryant and Mr. Harper — but still failed to collect the 50 percent of the vote needed to win the nomination outright, thus setting up a June 24 runoff against Mr. McDaniel.
The result was welcome news for the tea party and its allies, who have been looking to recreate some of the magic from the 2010 and 2012 elections, where the grass-roots movement helped power Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas to victory.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, whose super PAC put $286,000 behind Mr. McDaniel, suggested that the race in Mississippi is shaping up to be like the 2012 contest between Mr. Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
In that race, Mr. Dewhurst, the establishment favorite, won the GOP Senate primary by 10 percentage points, but Mr. Cruz, the darling of the tea party movement, surged ahead of him in the runoff to win by 13 percentage points.
"Grass roots shows up when it counts," Mr. Kibbe said. "We plan to double down on our efforts to support the grass-roots ground game in Mississippi to make sure Chris McDaniel defeats Thad Cochran in a runoff."
Some of Mr. Cochran's allies were less committal about their involvement in the runoff. The National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement Wednesday that it "will continue to fully support Thad Cochran." But while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $500,000 on pro-Cochran ads, also said it "will stand with" Mr. Cochran, it refused to say whether they would put more money into the race.
And American Crossroads, which has not spent money on the Mississippi race but has financially supported incumbent Republicans elsewhere, said it was focusing its resources on other races.
"Other than Alaska, we have completed our work on Senate primaries this cycle and are now focused on general elections," said Crossroads spokesman Paul Lindsay. "With the Chamber, the NRSC and a local super PAC already backing Cochran, this is not our fight."
Republican strategist Keith Appell said that does not bode well for Mr. Cochran.
"Resources are always limited, and they probably have some reservations about the likelihood that Cochran can win," Mr. Appell said. "The GOP establishment is not all-in for Cochran [and] that's quite revealing. And there are better opportunities this cycle to put some big points on the board."
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