- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sen. Thad Cochran turned back a hard challenge from tea-party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel in the Mississippi Senate runoff race Tuesday, handing the party establishment arguably its biggest win of the 2014 primary season and boosting Republican hopes of flipping control of the Senate in the November election.

Mr. Cochran’s win was viewed as a huge blow to the national tea party groups and their allies, who invested heavily in the race in hopes of scoring their first big win of the primary season over a Senate Republican incumbent.

The Associated Press called the race for Mr. Cochran more than three hours after the polls closed. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Cochran held a 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent edge over Mr. McDaniel.

“It’s a group effort, it’s not a solo and so we all have a right to be proud of our state tonight,” Mr. Cochran told supporters in a brief appearance late Tuesday night.

Mr. McDaniel, meanwhile, refused to concede. He blamed the loss on “liberal Democrats” and slammed Mr. Cochran and his allies for “once again compromising,” “reaching across the aisle” and “abandoning the conservative movement.”

“This is not the party of Reagan,” Mr. McDaniel said, adding that he will not surrender. “Now it’s our job to make sure that the sanctity of the vote is upheld. Before this race ends, we have to make absolutely certain that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”

Some of those same tea party groups that backed Mr. McDaniel in Mississippi also were left licking their wounds after coming out on the losing end of a special election to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Rep. James Lankford, a member of House Republican leadership, easily outpaced six other candidates, including former State Speaker T.W. Shannon, who had the support of such tea party favorites as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“The conservative tea party folks wanted a scalp on their mantle,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “And in terms of marquee races, the Mississippi and Oklahoma U.S. Senate races were their last best opportunities this cycle. The narrative going forward will be ‘the establishment strikes back,’ but the duel between the Hatfields and McCoys of the Republican Party is far from settled.”

The Mississippi and Oklahoma contests were two of the most watched races on a busy election night in which Rep. Charles Rangel, a 22-term congressman, was also fighting for his political life and appeared poised to fend off a chance from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat in New York’s 13th Congressional District.

With 99.6 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Rangel held a 47.5 percent percent to 43.6 percent lead over Mr. Espaillat.

Mr. Rangel claimed victory late Tuesday night, but according to New York TV stations, Mr. Espaillat left his campaign headquarters insisting the race remained too close to call.

Voters also headed to the polls in Colorado, Utah and Maryland, where Democrats picked Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown as their man to succeed outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who is thought to be flirting with a presidential run.

Tuesday’s victory makes Mr. Brown the overwhelming favorite in the heavily Democratic state’s November general election. All eight of the state’s incumbent House members also easily won nominations over little-known challengers.

Republican Curt Clawson, meanwhile, won the special election in Florida’s 19th Congressional District and will fill out the term of Rep. Trey Radel, the freshman lawmaker who resigned from Congress in January after getting caught trying to purchase cocaine in a sting operation.

After Mr. Clawson’s win, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden said the candidate would work “tirelessly to create jobs, strengthen the economy and stop Obamacare from continuing to hurt Florida families.”

But the main event of the evening was in Mississippi, where outside groups spent more than $11 million on behalf of the candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Club for Growth Action, Senate Conservatives Action, and Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund invested millions on behalf of Mr. McDaniel, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Mississippi Conservatives, which was run by Henry Barbour, a member of the RNC and nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, threw their financial muscle behind Mr. Cochran.

Tea partyers hoped the McDaniel campaign would be energized by Dave Brat’s shocking victory earlier this month over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia Republican primary, a result that rattled the Washington establishment.

But it was not to be, as Mr. Cochran made a late pitch to black voters and Democrats that political analysts said provided him with the margin of victory.

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report said via Twitter that the Cochran “win is almost entirely attributable to a large turnout increase among black votes” that did not come out for the initial June 3 primary.

Bitterness over that tactic was likely to remain.

Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks for America, which spent more than $450,000 on pro-McDaniel efforts, called it disgraceful that “self-described GOP leaders” such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. John McCain, along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee would “champion a campaign platform of pork barrel spending and insider deal-making, while recruiting Democrats to show up at the polls.”

“If the only way the K Street wing of the GOP establishment can win is by courting Democrats to vote in GOP primaries, then we’ve already won,” Mr. Kibbe said. “Tonight is proof that the K Street establishment is intellectually bankrupt, and we are going to have to clean it up.”

Mr. McConnell defeated a tea party backed challenger earlier in the primary season.

Before the votes were tallied, Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that a Cochran win would serve as a reminder of the power of incumbency.

“Even as several Senate incumbents have had harder races than they are used to this year — Cochran especially — no Senate incumbent has lost a primary this year,” Mr. Kondik said. “Senate primary defeats are rare, and even without an optimal performance from the candidate, that the Cochran forces got their main over the finish line is a testament to the enduring power of incumbency. The battle between the establishment and outsider forces in the GOP rages on, though.”

Heading into the election, political observers generally believed that Mr. McDaniel could have the upper hand, thanks in large part to his loyal band of grass-roots activists.

But in the final weeks of the campaign, political observers said that the Cochran campaign threw everything but the kitchen sink at Mr. McDaniel, who had the backing of Mrs. Palin and former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Mr. Cochran aggressively courted black voters and campaigned alongside Mr. McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee.

The Chamber of Commerce, which spent $1.2 million on the race and has been on the winning side of every primary in which it has invested, also cut a pro-Cochran commercial featuring former NFL star quarterback Brett Favre, a Mississippi native.

Mr. Cochran now moves on to face former Rep. Travis Childers, who some Democrat suggested might have had a better chance against Mr. McDaniel.

“A McDaniel win puts Mississippi on the map in a huge way for Democrats — you’d certainly rather run against an extremist who pals around with white nationalists and segregationists than a multiterm sitting senator,” Democratic strategist Christy Setzer had said.

She went on to liken Mr. McDaniel to a pair of 2012 tea party candidates who won primary races in conservative states only to lose in the general election.

“Just ask Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock how well their extreme records in red states worked out for them,” she said.

The race in Mississippi turned ugly in March after a McDaniel supporter was arrested after illegally taking pictures of Mr. Cochran’s wife, Rose, who suffers from dementia, at her nursing home.

Mr. McDaniel overcame the scandal and nearly knocked off Mr .Cochran in the primary earlier this month, but fell just shy of collecting 50 percent of the vote, which was needed to avoid a runoff.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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