By David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – Sen. Thad Cochran won the Mississippi Republican Senate nomination Tuesday, edging upstart challenger Chris McDaniel and the tea party movement.
The runoff election victory by the savvy Washington insider was a rebuff to the tea party and like-minded conservative groups that passionately rallied around McDaniel. His defeat was a bitter blow to a conservative insurgency that began 2014 with enormous ambitions but found itself losing almost weekly.
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Those groups had vowed to topple the party’s Washington establishment by defeating Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Cochran and others. Instead, they saw most of their challengers overwhelmed by the Republican mainstream, as the party’s business allies and longtime strategists fashioned successful efforts for long-established incumbents.
Cochran followed that script. He had the backing of most of Mississippi’s Republican hierarchy, as well as strong financial support from business interests. He touted his ability to win much-needed dollars for his impoverished state, and got local officials’ backing all over Mississippi.
And he got an apparent boost from Democrats and independent–notably black voters–who were eligible to participate. Non-Republicans who did not vote in the June 3 primary were eligible to vote Tuesday.
Cochran, speaking to supporters in Jackson Tuesday evening, said his win demonstrated a “consensus for more and better jobs for Mississippi workers (and) a military force and the capacity to defend the security interests of the United States of America. Those were our principles.”
“They called me every name in the book,” McDaniel said in his concession. “But it’s OK . . I’m still standing.” He vowed to “stand for conservative principles, even in the face of those who may ostracize us.”
McDaniel had fought back in the campaign with a pledge to fight to reduce the federal debt and get the government out of people’s lives. His rallies were full of energy and he attracted a host of conservative stars and volunteers.
But he couldn’t overcome Cochran, a familiar, comforting presence to many in a state where change comes slowly.
Cochran, 76, was seeking nomination to seek a seventh term and a return to Washington as one of its more experienced power brokers. He preached inclusiveness and compromise.
McDaniel, 41, is one of the Republicans’ new breed, an outspoken conservative with backing from the tea party and other outside conservative groups. He worked to rally Republicans, urging them to stick to conservative principles.
McDaniel barely finished ahead of Cochran in the June 3 primary, but was just short of a majority and forced into the two-man runoff. Cochran has since waged a more energetic campaign, urging Democrats and independents to stop McDaniel and his staunch conservative allies.
Cochran was backed by an outpouring from the establishment, with financial and advertising support from a who’s who of official Washington including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans.
“The U.S. Chamber was actively involved in the Mississippi Senate primary and runoff because Thad Cochran is a proven leader who gets results for Mississippi,” said Rob Engstrom, National Political Director of the Chamber in a statement. “We were proud to stand with Sen. Cochran in his race and congratulate him on his victory.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman of the Senatorial Committee, praised Cochran’s “hard-fought and well-deserved victory.”
Cochran traveled the state with a coterie of local celebrities. He campaigned with Gov. Phil Bryant and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, a Gulfport, Miss., native, appeared in Cochran’s ads.
McDaniel’s outside support and money came from a roster of conservative groups trying to upend the party hierarchy, including the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks for America.
The Tea Party Express rolled through Mississippi on a bus tour over the weekend. Sarah Palin and libertarian stalwart Ron Paul campaigned for McDaniel.
After getting outhustled in the first round, Cochran showed more fight in the runoff.
On Tuesday, Cochran made an early morning stop at McElroy’s on the Bayou Coffee Shop in Ocean Springs, a visit to his Rankin County headquarters to fire up workers, lunch at Mama Hamil’s restaurant in Madison, and a stop at his Madison headquarters.
He made a subtle pitch for Democrats and independents, many of whom could qualify to vote Tuesday. One Cochran ad started with him greeting black voters.
McDaniel’s events were a stark contrast. He speaks energetically, invokes the legacy of President Ronald Reagan, takes lots of questions and banters with the media.
In Madison last week, 2012 Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum led a rally of about 300 people. “He’s not for turning over more power and control to Washington, D.C.,” Santorum said of McDaniel.
The challenger routinely protested Cochran’s ties to Washington and the party establishment.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s organization supported Cochran, warning that a McDaniel win would mean much-needed federal money would dry up.
Cochran pushed that theme hard. Every day featured a visit to a defense contractor or to a city whose infrastructure had been rebuilt since Hurricane Katrina nine years ago. McDaniel countered that he’d advocate for Mississippi, but that perhaps some spending should be curtailed in order to get the federal debt down.