Six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel dueled at close quarters in Mississippi’s primary election Tuesday night, an epic struggle in a party divided along ideological lines. GOP governors in South Dakota and Alabama coasted to renomination.
State Sen. Joni Ernst overwhelmed her Republican rivals in Iowa after uniting rival wings of the party, and will challenge Rep. Bruce Braley this fall for a Senate seat long in Democratic hands.
In a third Senate race on the busiest night of the primary season, former Gov. Mike Rounds won the Republican nomination in South Dakota — and instantly became the favorite to pick up a seat for the GOP in its drive to capture the six the party needs to capture a majority this fall.
Five states picked nominees for governor, including California, where Democrat Jerry Brown sought renomination to a fourth term.
The marquee contest of the night was in Mississippi, where Cochran, 76, and the 41-year-old McDaniel remained locked in a close race as the vote count mounted. Returns from 85 percent of the state’s precincts showed McDaniel narrowly ahead in a three-way race, and a June 24 runoff was possible.
Dozens of nomination races for House seats dotted the ballot, too, including 38 in California’s open primary system, which awarded spots on the November ballot to the two top vote-getters regardless of party.
The Senate contest between Cochran and McDaniel in Mississippi drew top billing, a heated race between a pillar of the GOP establishment who has helped funnel millions of dollars to his state and a younger state lawmaker who drew backing from tea party groups and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The campaign took a turn toward the sensational when four men, all McDaniel supporters, were arrested and charged with surreptitiously taking photographs of the senator’s 72-year-old wife, who suffers from dementia and has long lived in a nursing home.
One black group, “All Citizens for Mississippi,” made up of Cochran’s supporters, advertised in two black newspapers and handed out fliers in the race’s final days as they appealed to traditionally Democratic voters to extend his career.
Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, a black Democrat who served for 26 years in the state Legislature, said he was supporting the white, Republican incumbent.
He said the senator has secured federal funding for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers research station in his city, adding, “It is incumbent for me to vote for Thad.”
State law required the primary leader to gain at least 50 percent of the vote to win the nomination outright.
The presence of a third Republican on the ballot, Thomas Carey, raised the possibility that a June 24 runoff between the top two finishers would be needed.