Mississippi Republicans Can't Make Up Their Mind

Neither Senator Thad Cochran nor Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel seemed to have won an outright majority, meaning the race will go to a runoff in late June.

Chris McDaniel addresses supporters late Tuesday. (George Clark/Associated Press)

HATTIESBURG, Miss.—Given the choice between an out-of-touch incumbent and a flawed challenger, Mississippi Republicans could not make up their collective mind.

In a stunning result here Tuesday, the Republican civil war was fought to a draw. Senator Thad Cochran, a 41-year incumbent, took 48.8 percent of the vote, while state Senator Chris McDaniel, his Tea Party-aligned opponent, took 49.6 percent with more than 97 percent of precincts reporting late Tuesday. (One county had not reported its results because the election commissioner had gone to bed.) With the outstanding results unlikely to push either candidate over 50 percent, the two candidates appear headed for a runoff in three weeks' time.

In Jackson, Cochran did not greet his assembled supporters. In Hattiesburg, where hundreds packed the spacious convention center, McDaniel struck a defiant tone even as he allowed, "We'll probably know tomorrow" whether a runoff was in the offing.

"I promise you this: Whether tomorrow or three weeks from tonight, we will stand victorious," McDaniel said. "We are not the type of people who walk away and retreat, and rest assured, Washington, D.C., we never will."

Both campaigns are exhausted and out of money, but the runoff scenario is expected to give the advantage to McDaniel, who is a more energetic campaigner and whose supporters are more committed. McDaniel declined to address reporters as he left the stage Tuesday. The vote will be on June 24.

It was a bizarrely equivocal result in a contest that was expected to send a message nationally about the health of the Tea Party movement, whose onetime power to topple complacent incumbents has seemed to wane this year. "What we are learning tonight is that the principles that motivate the Tea Party are alive and well," Matt Kibbe, president of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, told me in Hattiesburg.

Kibbe's group had already spent $350,000 on grassroots mobilization for McDaniel, an effort he said would now be redoubled. "We're all in," he said. "We're going to double down."