HATTIESBURG, Mississippi — The most closely watched campaign in the country will continue for another three weeks, as Tea Party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran head to a June 24 runoff in the Republican primary here. Neither candidate won a majority in Tuesday’s primary vote, but McDaniel’s margin of about 2,000 votes out of more than 300,000 votes cast was enough for the young state senator to declare his win “a historic moment” for Mississippi.
“Our fight is not over,” McDaniel told the crowd in the Hattiesburg Convention Center ballroom last Tuesday night, as votes continued to be counted. “Whether it’s tomorrow, or whether it’s three weeks from tonight, we will stand victorious.”
The runoff was forced because there were three candidates on the ballot and a little-noticed third candidate, businessman Thomas Carey, got nearly 5,000 votes — only 1.6 percent of the total, but enough to keep McDaniel below the crucial majority needed to avoid the runoff. Yet the result Tuesday was cause for celebration among Tea Party activists who have spent months campaigning to defeat the six-term incumbent Cochran.
Hundreds of McDaniel supporters spent a long night at the Convention Center anxiously watching the election returns. There was a bagpipe band that played “Scotland the Brave” and “Amazing Grace,” and then country singer Eric Welford entertained the crowd, but many of the attendees spent the night gathered around a large video screen that posted the campaign’s own vote-counting totals. Others kept checking their smartphones to see the live tally posted by Politico.
Two hours after the polls closed, with about 60 percent of precincts reporting, Cochran led by nearly 5,000 votes, and a sense of dread swept through the crowd. Has the scandal caused by a blogger’s foolish stunt — sneaking into a nursing home to snap a photo of Cochran’s bedridden wife — doomed the challenger? Had the Republican establishment’s multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign salvaged re-election for the aging incumbent? Then the numbers swung in McDaniel’s favor and the crowd cheered as the total flashed on the big-screen TV tuned to Fox News.
Past 11 p.m., with more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, it became clear that a runoff was the most likely outcome and I spotted Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks standing near the stage. Like many other conservative groups, including Tea Party Patriots and Club for Growth, Freedomworks has spent months supporting McDaniel’s challenge. Were they ready to go another three weeks? “We don’t stop,” Kibbe answered.
The result Tuesday encouraged McDaniel’s supporters to believe that they can win the runoff in three weeks, and it was in a mood of celebration that they applauded the candidate when he was introduced as “the next senator from Mississippi.” McDaniel gave his speech encouraging them to keep up the fight and, after he finished and had begun shaking hands, the candidate returned to the stage to acknowledge answered prayers: “We owe everything that happened tonight to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”